Milwaukee Common Council approves $20 million streetcar expansion

The City of Milwaukee's Common Council has approved $20 million in local, tax increment finance (TIF) money to put towards expanding the reach of the Milwaukee Streetcar system.

The streetcar is expected to begin serving the Third Ward and Downtown in 2018. That phase one route, along with an extension to the lakefront, is currently expected to cost $128 million.

More than half of the money is expected to come from the federal government.

On Wednesday, the council voted to extend the streetcar route to an area of Fourth Street between Juneau and the Amtrak station on St. Paul Avenue. 

Advocates for the project, which would include a development and transit plaza on a city-owned lot at 4th and Wisconsin Ave., have said the extension will link Westown and the new Bucks arena with the Third Ward and downtown.

The Fourth St. extension is also seen as pivotal to eventually connecting the streetcar with the Bronzeville and Walker's Point neighborhoods.

The extension would be paid for in part with the money from three TIF districts, one of which is new, approved by the council Wednesday. The city has applied for $20 million in federal funding to cover the other half of the project.

"This money will not be spent unless the (federal) grant is awarded to the city," said Ald. Bob Bauman, who voted for the extension. 

Bauman said a vibrant streetcar project will boost development downtown and benefit the whole city of Milwaukee.

"The investment it's making downtown, and the growth occurring downtown, adds to the tax base which benefits public services delivered city-wide," Bauman said.

But Ald. Mark Borkowski, who voted against the extension, said it's irresponsible to approve it without knowing what type of ridership the streetcar will attract.

"We have downtown, which is doing fine, and then we have the rest of the city," Borkowski said.

"If we don't start giving support to the rest of the city, like we're doing to downtown, I think we're in trouble," Borkowski said.

Borkowski said he's also hesitant to rely on federal money for the building of the streetcar. He said he's unsure how the operating costs of the streetcar will be paid for.

Borkowski was the only person to speak against the extension before the vote. Aldermen Bob Donovan, Jim Bohl, and Tony Zielinski also voted no.

The city expects a decision on federal funding for the 4th St. extension to come down this fall. 

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