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Milwaukee County backs rapid bus transit funding, awaits word on federal grant.

Byline: Nate Beck,

Milwaukee's first rapid transit bus line the first of its kind in the city took another step forward after earning a spot in Milwaukee County's 2019 budget.

Local officials are now waiting to hear if the project will get a federal grant that pays for the bulk of the project.

Thenew bus line's$53 million price tag includes the cost of purchasing new buses, building 20 rapid transit platforms and dedicating bus-only lanes along the route. It's slated to start at a planned transit center included in plans for The Couture high-rise, which has yet to break ground at the corner of Lincoln Memorial Drive and East Michigan Street, and end at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

Though the county's 2019 budget includes $7 million for the project, it still relies on a $37.4 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. MRMC has also committed to kicking in $4.5 million for the route. Milwaukee County Transit System spokesman Brendan Conway saidaside from an ongoing environmental assessment of the project, inclusion in next year's budget is the final step in a three-year planning process for the county.

If the plan clears a final budgetary meeting on Monday, when County Executive Chris Abele can veto items, all that's left to do is wait for word from the FTA, Conway said.

"Obviously getting the county commitment was really important," Conway said. "FTA likes to see a local commitment. We've had full support in votes. We kind of have all the boxes checked at this point."

The rapid transit line, with stops at Marquette University and in Wauwatosa, is aimed at commuters and promises to run 10 or 15 minutes faster than a typical bus route. A one-way ride would take 37 minutes on average and the line is expected to shuttle 9,500 riders each weekday by 2035. It's the first route of its kind in Milwaukee's rapid transit line and is modeled after similar routes in Denver, Cleveland and Kansas City.

In addition to waiting for a grant from the FTA, county officials arealso waiting for The Couture high-rise project to move ahead. The development includes plans for a transit center that would serve as a hub for the rapid transit line and a lakefront route for the city of Milwaukee's new streetcar, The Hop.

Developer Rick Barrett announced last week that he had cleared a hurdle in winning a crucial U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan guarantee needed to finance the project, but has not announced a timeline for groundbreaking. The agency is reviewing Barrett's final financing application and could decide whether to back the project or not within 60 days.

But if the transit center planned for the long-delayed Couture project isn't running by the end of 2020, Milwaukee County could face up to $6.7 million in federal penalties. That's because county officials sold the land for the high-rise to Barrett at a steep discount. A 1988 federal grant helped the county build a transit center at the site and stipulates that because the property wasn't sold at market rate, it must include a transit related purpose by Dec. 31, 2020.

Establishing rapid transit service in Milwaukee, however, marks a change in the city's traditional transit system.Milwaukee is one of the few cities of its size that relies solely on standard bus service, and has been resistant to change, said Thomas Stawicki, legislative director for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, which represents Milwaukee County transit workers.

The rapid transit line is onestep toward filling the region's vast public transportation needs, he said. Lawmakers in Milwaukee and elsewhere have just begun debating a plan to establish bus service from the city to Racine and Kenosha counties, where large employers like Foxconn Technology Group and Haribo are setting up shop.

"(Rapid transit) has worked in other cities," Stawicki said. "Milwaukee still remains old-fashioned for the diversity we have here."

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Publication:The Daily Reporter
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Nov 9, 2018
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