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On the Downtown streetcar, the Milwaukee Bucks arena, and the path forward.

“Ticket to Ride” played in the background as Mayor Tom Barrett walked confidently into the Pabst Theater Pub on Wednesday afternoon, ready to sign legislation approving the initial route of the Milwaukee streetcar project.

In one sense, it felt like the end of something. Aldermen, business leaders, and others from the pro-streetcar camp cheered when the Mayor put pen to paper. But like anything in the ongoing tale of Downtown Milwaukee’s reinvention, the story of the streetcar does not exist in a silo.

Ripple effects are still being felt from when, just a few short blocks away from the Pabst Theater at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Walker unveiled his plan to fund the proposed new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

In Tuesday’s news cycle, the streetcar vote overlapped with the offer from the Menominee Tribe to provide funding for the arena (a fairly obvious non-starter from the get-go that was quickly dismissed by Walker’s administration), and the Bucks’ announcement of a new corporate partner (Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, which takes over naming rights for the training facility known as the Cousins Center), which many hoped signaled the next step toward the selection of an arena location. It was the latest reminder of the sheer volume of activity and the fever pitch of interest in what’s next for Downtown. It’s also indicative of the interconnected nature of all of these projects progressing at the same time in more or less the same place.

But seeing the next steps for the streetcar and the arena may require some patience.

Let’s start with the streetcar. Putting aside the well-documented debate on the project, there is still time remaining to collect the 31,000 petition signatures needed to force a referendum. As of Sunday, says Chris Kliesmet, executive administrator for Citizens for Responsible Government, a group organizing the petition drive, 16,278 petitions had been collected. However, if the 31,000 signatures were to be collected by the March 3 deadline, there is still a path forward for those looking to stop the current project, says Kliesmet, and additionally, a passed referendum would impact any proposed extensions.

“The key date is the date they begin construction,” he says. “That’s at least a year away.”

The city attorney’s office has suggested, however, that the petition drive does not have a path forward. It’s not unreasonable to expect this matter to, in some capacity, land in court.

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Meanwhile, those involved with the project have work to do. Members of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will be in Milwaukee next week, says Barrett, as Milwaukee has “moved to their front burner.” This meeting kicks off the next phase of the project.

Barrett has put the end goal for the streetcar’s first rides at “late 2017, early 2018.” While some construction could begin later this year, the “main part of the track zone construction is something that will be most likely started in 2016,” says Jeff Polenske, city engineer. Now that the Common Council has approved the project, says Polenske, there are two primary efforts that will now be underway – track engineering and vehicle procurement.

Vehicle procurement has “a long lead time,” says Polenske, and Barrett hopes the actual cars themselves will be purchased later this year. The track engineering and design portion is a bit more complex. The majority of the track has been at “60 percent completed design” for some time now – they couldn’t go any further without approval – but design on the lakefront hub of the track will be “starting from scratch,” says Polenske.

streetcar, milwaukee, downtown

The streetcar’s initial route in Downtown Milwaukee. Image courtesy City of Milwaukee.

Polenske also said there are some adjustments being made to the route through working with We Energies. One is on the stretch of the route along Wells Street between Milwaukee and Van Buren streets. There, says Polenske, the track could be split between Wells Street (heading east) and Kilbourn Avenue (heading west). The other adjustment could take place on Van Buren Street. There, the route plan is currently split between Van Buren Street (heading north) and Jackson Street (heading south) in the stretch of the route between Wells and Odgen Avenue. There is some concern with the route being on Van Buren, so this adjustment would consolidate the route to Jackson. Both of these adjustments came about through in the utility coordination process with We Energies, and would be done in large part to avoid underground steam tunnels.

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“With those two adjustments – while it really doesn’t affect the range of who we draw ridership from – it has potential to minimize that impact and reduce the utility cost by another several million dollars,” says Polenske.

Before the ink was even dry at Barrett’s streetcar signing ceremony, the mayor was asked in a media scrum about connecting the streetcar to a new arena.

“If the new arena is built close to (the Bradley center),” answered Barrett, “I think it would make sense to have a stop at the new arena.”

Obviously, there is no definitive arena site as of yet, but most reports suggest that land just north of the Bradley Center along with Park East land is now its most likely destination, and Barrett’s acknowledgement of that area as a likely arena destination is not a detail to be overlooked.

Bucks ownership has moved the goalposts on announcing an arena location several times now. This is not without reason. The initial plan was to first announce a location, then do engineering and design, and then determine funding. But Gov. Walker flipped the script with the announcement of his “Pay Their Way” plan, putting funding ahead of the arena project’s other aspects. This complicates things.

One matter that is yet to be resolved in the arena process is that of land and facility ownership. The Bucks currently do not own the BMO Harris Bradley Center; it is owned and governed by the Bradley Center Sports and Entertainment Corporation, which is created and organized through a state statute and governed by an appointed board. Under Gov. Walker’s proposal, another “Sports and Entertainment District” would be created, which would include a nine-member board appointed by the Governor.

In order for any of this to go forward, however, it needs to be passed through the state legislature. Gov. Walker’s “Pay Their Way” plan has been included in the state budget. And the state budget, according to the State Assembly’s Chief Clerk’s office, will not be passed before June.

That’s complex enough, even without mentioning that there are parcels of land in the likely arena zone owned by the state, county, and city. And if you expect the transfer of that land to be an easily navigable process, you’ve been living in a different city.

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