Connector Disconnect:Can we get public transportationon the right track?

public transportation

by Belle Bergner

Is there anything that makes acity more attractive than goodpublic transit?

Public transportation aside,Milwaukee has it all – restaurants,music, art, parks, and more.But our antiquated bus systemis holding us back from whatforward-thinking residents andcity leaders want to challenge thecity to become – one of the mosteconomically and environmentallythriving, livable and attractivecities in the country. To becomethat, we need a drastically better,more aesthetically pleasing, andenvironmentally sound publictransportation system.

Enter the Milwaukee Connectorproject, formed by the WisconsinCenter District, who appliedfor and received Federal TransitAdministration funding in 2000to analyze and evaluate potentialdowntown transit systems. Agoverning council consisting ofrepresentatives from the City ofMilwaukee, Milwaukee County,the Milwaukee MetropolitanAssociation of Commerce(MMAC), and the CenterDistrict was formed to guide theConnector study.

Over 340 organizations andbusinesses along the proposedConnector route were givenpresentations about the proposedalternatives and asked to commenton them, says Kris Martinsek,a consultant working on theConnector project.

“The Guided Street Tram technologyemerged as the likely ‘locally preferredalternative’ based on local interviews,surveys, and funding estimates, but it hasnot officially been chosen to propose to theFeds for federal money. That would comeafter a 45 day public comment period,” saysMartinsek.

Martinsek says that six years of public inputled to the three options currently availablefor our transit system: (1) do nothing,(2) the Tram, or (3) a hybrid bus system.Doing nothing would continue to let thetransit system decline, lose revenue, andspew polluting diesel emissions. The Tramactually offers an annual net savings of$900,000 because of lower operating costscompared to the bus system, not to mentiona more pleasant ride. The hybrid bus systemdoes not save any money and reduces just asmany parking spots as the tram.

The Tram uses overhead electric guidewires and an in-street track, but offers theflexibility for trams to disconnect from thetrack to go around objects if needed. It wouldbe quieter, faster, less disruptive to buildthan light rail, carry more people per tram,and pollute less than buses. Existing busroutes would remain except for where theTram would replace them on the proposedroutes. On top of it all, Milwaukee would beeligible for more federal transit money for afixed system rather than buses, lessening thelocal tax burden to support public transit.What was scheduled to take place over thenext few months was a public commentperiod, more fully developed engineeringplan, and identification of fundingsources. But in order to move forward,the Connector Council needed to vote tosupport the Tram… and that’s where thingsget political.

First, the MMAC, Center District, andCommon Council voted to recommend theTram as the locally preferred alternative.Then Milwaukee County Executive ScottWalker and Alderman Bob Baumann(representing the Center City) weighed inpublicly, denouncing the Connector projectas too expensive and limiting transit servicerather than expanding it, saying they wouldveto it. Talk show pundits Belling and Sykesrailed the proposed Tram and numerouseditorials and op-ed pieces appeared inthe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, includingsome written by the County Executive andAlderman Bauman.

And then the green light appeared to changeto yellow: Barrett vetoed the CommonCouncil’s vote, County Executive Walkervetoed the County Board’s vote of support,then the County Board’s attempt to overridethe Exec’s veto failed to win the necessarytwo-thirds majority.

Bauman wants the $91 million in federalfunds currently dedicated for a new publictransit system (proposed to be used for theGuided Tram) to link a light rail systemthrough the Menomonee Valley to theKenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) line.

In a May 19 interview with RiverwestCurrents staff, Barrett said, “I needed thecounty to agree to run the Connector, toknow where those local matching fundswere going to come from, and how thenew system would impact bus riders beforeapproving the project.”

But Alderman Mike D’Amato, whorepresents Riverwest and the East Side,says that the local match does not need tobe identified at this point. It will be workedout after the general concept is approved bythe Connector Council, which is why theCommon Council voted to move forwardwith the Tram – to keep the bus moving.(UWM • CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1)

Representing one of the largest areas of thecity that would be affected by the Connectorproject, D’Amato says “Mayor Barrett ishiding behind this local funding issuebecause he doesn’t have the courage to takea stand on the issue. He knows that the nextstep is to identify the local funding and getpublic input. He’s in favor of public transitoptions but won’t take a leadership stand.He’s taken the political way out.”

If the City and County can compromiseand choose one or more of the identifiedlocal funding sources to reach the $57million local match, Milwaukee will be ableto collect the $91million in federal funds.Otherwise the federal money could be lost.

If that happens, Milwaukee could find itselflost in the diesel plume of its post-industrialdecline because some other forwardthinkingcity is waiting to grab it.

Belle Bergner is an environmental consultantwho lives in Riverwest.

Guided Street Tram (GST)

The GST combines rubber tire bus technologywith train technologies. Bodies are modeled aftertrains giving the vehicle twice the life of a bus. Thevehicles ride on rubber tires, but are guided by atrack or other form of guidance system. Primarypower source is electric with the potential to usean alternate hybrid diesel power source as a backup.

Riverwest Currents online edition – June, 2006