Could the New Streetcar Spell the End for Milwaukee’s Trolley?

Ding, ding! Is the Trolley on its last leg?

After 21 years of clanging and dinging, it could be the end of the line for Milwaukee’s Trolley Loop, the distinctive red/green bus fleet that harks back to the city’s historic streetcar systems. With the shiny new Milwaukee streetcar (The Hop) set to carry its first passengers sometime in mid-2018, “We’re really questioning” the trolley loop’s future, says Beth Weirick, executive director of the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District, the loop’s primary sponsor. Citing its $70,000 annual cost and summers-only schedule, she asks, “For such a short-term service, is it worth the investment?”

At their peak, from 2000 to 2003, the rubber-tired trolleys ran all day and all year, and carried 1.5 million riders over those four years, throughout Downtown and as far west as Potawatomi Bingo Casino. Then operated by the Milwaukee County Transit System, the line fell on hard times when federal funding ran out, and County Executive Scott Walker spiked it. Downtown businesses, led by Weirick’s district, raised enough money to resurrect the Trolley Loop, but on its original summers-only schedule.

Visitors love the trolleys, Weirick says, but they and other passengers added up to just 4,935 people last summer, putting the annual cost at about $14 per head. At the same time, she notes, the trolley route was often obstructed by construction for the real streetcar, which will offer all-day, year-round service. Weirick expects her district’s board will reach a final decision on the trolley loop’s future in February, based on the cost, the obstacles and available funding.

‘Last Stop’ appears in the January 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.