After more than a decade of deliberation, Milwaukee has latched onto the transnational trend of implementing streetcars as catalysts for economic growth.
The Milwaukee Common Council on February 10th approved the 2.5-mile streetcar project connecting downtown Milwaukee and the lower east side in a 9-6 vote, claiming that the streetcar will drive economic growth. With the recent developments, an anti-streetcar movement began to gain traction throughout January. Opponents of the streetcar believe that the money could be better spent on improving the current public bus system and repairing intercity roads.
Here are the facts. Funding of the streetcar will be 80 percent federal and 20 percent local. Much of the federal support is legally tied to funding a streetcar, and a streetcar only. The local funds will be gathered by increasing the taxes on the downtown areas that will benefit from the streetcar. Technically no money will be lost or gained for any current public projects. The streetcar is designed to supplement buses in niche parts of the city. The building of the streetcar will occur concurrently with the developments in high traffic highways and the improvement of bus quality through federal grants.
The streetcar trend was made possible in part by grants from the federal government U.S. that have been available since 2009. Since then, more than 18 streetcar projects across the nation have received grants, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
Cities comparable to Milwaukee, like Portland and Seattle, have seen growth in their employment rates alongside already established forms of public transit like buses and subways. Milwaukee is one of the more densely populated cities in the U.S. and of the few without an alternative public transportation system.
But even without a transportation revamp, Milwaukee has regained economic footing as the national U.S. economy stabilized. It is worth debating whether or not Milwaukee needs a streetcar to develop.
There are two ways to look at streetcars.They can be seen as simply as an alternative public transit that takes commuters from point A to point B. Then there is also a more cultural view with the purpose of a streetcar reshaping the norms and habits in a specific area by building it alongside concurrent development projects. This approach takes the streetcar as more of a public contract for future development in a specific area. It’s important to clarify that the two views of streetcars are not mutually exclusive of one another.
Mainstream media often played up the role of streetcars attracting and transmitting millennials into developing cities. Even the official website of the new Milwaukee Streetcar embraces the belief that the streetcar will “attract and retain young talent needed to grow Milwaukee’s economy, support the creative class and fuel a culture of entrepreneurship.” Having a streetcar in a buzzing economic location is a logical decision. Scott Drewianka, associate professor of demographic economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees.
“My guess is that streetcars would be more popular and effective when they cover a route that many people want to travel, run frequently, and are safe and inexpensive, and also when other means of transport are less convenient, for example when traffic is congested or it is hard to park,” he wrote in an e-mail.
However, according to the 2010 census data, the age demographics between Milwaukee and Portland are similar with or without streetcars.
In 2012 the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, released a research report criticizing the role of streetcars stimulating the economy. The real problem that comes with developing around a streetcar is that as the areas around the streetcar develop, neighboring areas without the economic stimulus will be out-competed. If transportation is an issue in a developing city, the report suggests reinvigorating areas of the city with low employment by expanding the bus systems rather than investing in a new transit system in an already economically booming location.
Portland, often cited as the original success story of streetcars, saw economic gains through government development subsidies worth more than the actual investment of the streetcar itself. It is clear that a streetcar, as a means of transit alone, will not bring about economic development.
Jeff Brown, department chair and associate professor at the department of urban and regional planning at Florida State University, led a case study of five cities with streetcars in the U.S. The conclusion was it depends.
The report showed Portland as the golden star of streetcar cities. But, Portland’s experience came out of a unique combination of local populations, employment patterns, land development policy decisions and public investments that may not be applicable elsewhere.
One crucial factor in Portland’s success was the fact that it had a high-speed rail already connecting the neighboring suburbs into the downtown city area. If Portland is the standard, then Milwaukee is doing this backward.
There is a reason to this in Milwaukee. In a public forum about the streetcar issue in January, Mayor Tom Barrett said the U.S. Department of Transportation is reluctant to offer further aid in Milwaukee because of the Wisconsin’s rejection of the intended $800 million grant of the 2010 high-speed rail between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.
More than anything else, it is the prospect of new businesses entering the city that will attract new employees. Portland had several business initiatives that encouraged development along the transit lines.
In order for Milwaukee to attract businesses, Milwaukee must rebrand itself as a modern city. Milwaukee will need some sort of investment to attract new businesses but also connect it to the surrounding neighborhoods. Reports dating back to 2008 highlight the disconnect between economic growth the inner-city areas and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Milwaukee already has several initiatives to attract new investment in the downtown area, such as the ReFresh MKE campaign, and the development of a water research business park. Kevin Muhs, a transit planner for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, believes Milwaukee has reached its limit in terms of developing Milwaukee without a centralized transit system.
“We’ve got good bones, how do we take them further,” he said during a public forum in Milwaukee. “The streetcars are what’s going to bridge that gap. If you look at Denver, they’re just booming. It’s not just downtown but in the neighborhoods around it are connected by various fixtures of transit.”
Everything boils down to how much of an investment Milwaukee puts into the development in the area to attract future businesses, whether that be through developing areas around public transit that are supported by the federal government or city lead subsidies and improved bus services.