'Important to get to the neighborhoods:' Mayor Barrett defends streetcar expansion proposal

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on Wednesday, May 29 called on Milwaukee Common Council members to approve his proposal to expand "The Hop" streetcar after a committee vote on funding the expansion was delayed.

Plans to expand "The Hop" came to a halt on May 21, when a Milwaukee Common Council committee voted to delay approving money to extend it. Longtime critics of the streetcar said the city cannot afford it. New critics said the proposal doesn't deliver on the mayor's promise.

It could mean The Hop won't be ready for 2020 Democratic National Convention riders in July 2020.

City leaders, including Mayor Barrett, said they wanted the Common Council to pass resolutions releasing funds to immediately extend the streetcar to Wisconsin Avenue, and build a plaza nearby. Council members said city administrators could not account for how to pay for the project while funding current city services and increasing their investment in the central city. City officials said they believe federal grants and development-designated tax dollars could cover the cost. Their only concern -- the upcoming DNC. Council members did not dismiss those concerns, but said they believe city residents take priority over the DNC.

Mayor Barrett said more services for the central city and routes to different neighborhoods are part of the larger plan.

"When I first proposed the streetcar, I made it clear we were going to start in the heart of the city, but that it was important to get to the neighborhoods, and what I'm presenting is a proposal to get it north into Bronzeville, south into Walker's Point and to do so in a fiscally responsible way," said Barrett. "To me, this is a wonderful opportunity that we should not miss, and I know that it's a contentious issue. I know there should be a lot of debate. I'm asking the council to take a vote on this and to consider this so we can move forward."

The first phase of Mayor Barrett's expansion proposal would bring the streetcar north along Vel R. Phillips Avenue and 5th Street to Wisconsin Avenue -- providing a direct connection to the Wisconsin Center District. The mayor also announced plans to eventually extend the route north into Milwaukee's Bronzeville neighborhood -- and south into the Walker's Point neighborhood. The centerpiece of the project would be a $5 million plaza that would be named after Vel R. Phillips. The one-acre plaza would replace a parking lot — and include retail space, a garden space for a farmers market, a public art display, a HOP platform, a turn-around, and a bus stop.

Mayor Barrett said it would be a long-term project -- working with the federal government and partners. He estimated the federal government might be able to absorb about 50 percent of the $150 million to $160 million cost, with the expansion to Wisconsin Avenue estimated to cost $46.8 million.

The Common Council could split up the proposals and approve only construction to Wisconsin Avenue and the Vel Phillips Plaza -- the two projects Mayor Barrett wants completed by the time Milwaukee hosts the DNC in July 2020.

The full Milwaukee Common Council was set to vote on the proposals May 29. If not passed, Jeff Polenske, commissioner of the Department of Public Works said it's likely the extension to the convention center and the plaza would not be finished in time for the DNC.