Milwaukee County Is Building Its Rapid Bus Line Without the Matching Skyscraper

County transit planners no longer expect the long-delayed skyscraper will be completed before the BRT line starts running in fall 2022

Milwaukee County’s bus rapid transit project is moving more rapidly than The Couture.

Nearly $21 million of taxpayer money depends on the long-delayed lakefront skyscraper’s plan to include a transit concourse that would serve both the city’s streetcar line, The Hop, and the BRT line. But the latest route map for the BRT line – not yet posted on the project’s website – deletes the stop at the concourse, which was supposed to anchor the line’s eastern end.

Instead, when BRT service starts in fall 2022, the downtown end of the route initially will be at the corner of W. Wisconsin and N. Van Buren avenues, near the Northwestern Mutual headquarters. The 8.6-mile route – which has been shortened a half mile due to these changes – will extend west to the Watertown Plank Road park-and-ride lot in Wauwatosa, near the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex grounds.

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Milwaukee County Transit System planners aren’t giving up on The Couture, but they faced a federal deadline for finalizing the $54.8 million BRT route before the mixed-use building’s developer had even announced a construction start date, project staffer David Locher says.   

“While both the city and the county are confident that the developer will achieve the necessary financing, a specific date for the execution is yet to be determined,” Locher wrote in an email. “To maintain the intended schedule for the (East-West) BRT project, the county will use the (eastbound) Van Buren station as its terminus until The Couture is completed.”

Once The Couture is open, the county will add a BRT stop there, Locher says.

Photo via Couture website

But that’s still problematic for the city and county, because without the concourse, they would have to repay about $21 million in federal transit aid – and the latest move suggests the project could miss not only the current repayment deadline but even a requested deadline extension.

Featuring 44 stories of apartments and retail space, the $122 million Couture is to be built on the site of the county’s razed Downtown Transit Center. The Federal Transit Administration picked up much of the cost of the underused $12.6 million bus depot, but the county sold the site to The Couture’s developer, Barrett Lo Visionary Development LLC, for only $500,000.

Ordinarily, that would mean the county would have to repay $6.7 million to the feds. But former City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux figured the deal could work if The Couture included a transit concourse for The Hop and county buses. With that in mind, the city contributed $17.5 million to The Couture, much of it for the concourse, and streetcar planners designed The Hop’s lakefront leg, the L Line, to stop and turn around there.

The FTA awarded the city a $14.2 million grant for the L Line, covering nearly half its roughly $30 million construction cost, with the condition that the money had to be repaid if the extension wasn’t running by Dec. 31 of this year. The agency gave the county the same deadline to open the transit concourse or repay its $6.7 million in aid.

Most construction on the 0.4-mile L Line was complete by 2018, and the city planned to start service in 2019, following the November 2018 debut of the 2.1-mile M Line.

But The Couture wasn’t ready. The complex project ran into repeated financing delays. Under pressure from Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman and others on the Common Council, Marcoux vowed the city would reroute the L Line around The Couture if financing wasn’t in place by June 30 of this year.

Photo via Couture website

Barrett Lo beat that deadline with only four days to spare, announcing its investor financing on June 26. But that was almost a year after the developer’s application for federal loan guarantees had expired, and Barrett Lo now must re-enter that process.

Brian DeNeve, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works, says city officials “remain in close contact with the developers of the Couture, and we anticipate meeting the important deadlines associated with the project’s transportation infrastructure.”

Similarly, transit system spokesman Matt Sliker says the county is still seeking an 18-month extension of its Dec. 31 repayment deadline and hopes to hear back from the FTA about that this fall. If the extension is granted, the city and county will keep the agency posted about construction progress, Sliker says. 

But with no progress on an M Line extension to the Wisconsin Center, including a new Vel Phillips Transit Plaza, the prospect of being able to transfer between The Hop and the BRT line, either there or at The Couture, will have to wait even longer. And even if The Couture’s transit plaza opens by June 30, 2022, the new target date that would be set by an 18-month extension, the L Line’s tracks and stations will have stood unused for nearly four years by then. 

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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.