The International Light Rail Magazine
+44 1733 367610

Revitalising Milwaukee

Framed by the Milwaukee skyline, The Hop Liberty 02 crosses the Milwaukee River after leaving the Historic Third Ward station towards the Intermodal terminal on the first day of service, 2 November 2018. Image credit: Andrew Grahl

Downtown Milwaukee is undergoing a rebirth. With more than 100 new developments across the city’s core, pivotal construction projects are reshaping the skyline of a city that, like many in the Great Lakes region, suffered severe industrial decline in the later 20th Century.

Although it is home to Harley-Davidson motorcycles and international brewery names such as Miller (as well as a strong microbrewery scene), median incomes that were once amongst the highest in the US have fallen dramatically in recent decades. From the late 1960s, globalisation forced major factories to close and the population went into sharp decline – from a peak of around 741 000 to 572 000 just three decades later according to official census data.

The arrival of the first stage of the city’s modern streetcar project on 2 November is another sign that the green shoots of recovery are taking a firm hold. The initial 3.2km (2.1 miles) of ‘The Hop, presented by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’, to give the system its full and proper name, marks the culmination of more than 20 years of persistent lobbying by dedicated local politicians and business groups. A 320m extension is planned to open in 2020 to take the route to within a short walk of the redesigned Lake Michigan lakefront.

Commercial and residential developments recently completed or under construction in the city total over USD3bn in inward investment, creating much-needed jobs. The Hop is seen as a catalyst for this renewal and has resulted from city policies to reinvent local economies, supporting employment policies for publicly-funded projects that encourage the hiring of unemployed local residents to close the income gap.

It was apt then that the ribbon-cutting in Cathedral Square Park was performed with due ceremony by long-time streetcar advocate and fourth-term Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett, a man credited by many as the architect of this revitalisation by working from the core outwards – restarting the heart of a once-mighty Great Lakes powerhouse.

The first two cars, filled with dignitaries, left Cathedral Square Park in opposite directions to tour the system with public service beginning an hour later.

The new line connects the Intermodal Station – a combined railway and long-distance bus ‘gateway’ to the city, used by more than 1.3 million passengers each year – the Historic Third Ward and Milwaukee Public Market, the Central Business District, the Lake Michigan Lakefront, and the high-density neighbourhoods of the Lower East Side. The Intermodal Station opened in 2007, replacing a dilapidated 1960s structure, with a new USD22m passenger concourse and train shed added in June 2016.

The Hop will be fare-free for the first year thanks to a USD10m sponsorship deal signed with the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino that will support the operating costs of the line. As one of the largest entertainment complexes in Wisconsin, as well as a major employer in the downtown area, the CEO of the Native American-owned complex emphasised the importance of the streetcar at the signing of the 12-year deal in October 2017, saying that it is “committed to investing in the rebirth of Milwaukee”. It is understood that when fares are introduced they will be USD1.


Milwaukee is the largest city in the State of Wisconsin, close to the Canadian Border. Although not the state capital – that title is held by Madison, some 130km (80 miles) to the west – Milwaukee is by far the largest city in the state, counting a population more than double that of Madison.

Horse-drawn streetcars first came to the city in 1860, although the service was not quite the success story seen in other cities and it was not until 1890 that gradual electrification began, completed by the mid-1900s. Electrification brought expansion and expansion brought popularity, peaking in the early 1920s with more than 20 routes plus a number of interurban lines. This was when competition from the motor car and bus gained momentum which, as with most other US systems, led to the eventual decline and closure of the first-generation streetcar in March 1958.

By the early 1990s the city fathers took the opportunity to re-examine the path to growth and expansion, realising that there was a danger of urban streets becoming gridlocked with motor traffic. After much soul searching and lobbying – and a cancelled USD289m plan for an east-west bus corridor from downtown to Waukesha around 32km (20 miles) to the west that bequeathed a significant sum to the future streetcar plan – a rail-based solution emerged as the preferred option. In 1997 business lobbying organisation Milwaukee Downtown Bid #21 threw its considerable influence behind the streetcar project (CEO Beth Weirick acted as Master of Ceremonies for the opening), giving further momentum to the plans.

A guided bus scheme launched in 2005 offered a two-route system on segregated lanes from downtown to Miller Park, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the north side of the city. But this failed to pass muster, with Mayor Tom Barrett vetoing the USD300m scheme in May of the following year, citing too many ‘unanswered questions’ over local and federal funding contributions and the application of the technology.

He subsequently unveiled more detailed plans for a modern streetcar in 2008, identifying an initial route between the Intermodal Station and the Central Business District to serve the greatest numbers of residents along an alignment that also provided significant opportunities for economic regeneration. This ‘starter line’ would complement existing bus routes, especially the major bus corridor along Wisconsin Ave, as part of a grand vision for a future network to cover the whole city.

In 2015, authority was given for the first line, with a short spur to the lakefront, with project management handled by a partnership of streetcar specialists HNTB and HDR. Kiewit Infrastructure Co. was awarded the USD60m contract for construction in 2016, with works beginning later that year. An order was also placed with Pennsylvania-based Brookville Equipment Corporation for five double-ended Liberty vehicles equipped to run both by drawing power from the overhead at 750V dc by means of a pantograph and from
roof-mounted lithium-ion batteries.

Main works were completed in early 2018, but it was not until June that the system was handed over so that driver training and other preparations could begin under a five-year contract with Transdev to operate the system on behalf of the City of Milwaukee. By this time Brookville had handed over two of the cars with a third delivered a month later. All five were delivered in good time for the opening.

Riding The Hop

The initial alignment, designated as the M line, starts opposite the Intermodal Station and the car barn is located underneath the freeway just beyond the stop. The location was chosen to help protect the cars from the harsh Milwaukee winters; the City has contracted with Brookville to maintain the fleet.

From here it proceeds along St Paul Avenue and crosses the Milwaukee River via the St Paul Avenue bridge. This unusual steel table lift bridge rises vertically but not high enough to foul the overhead and was refurbished in a major USD9m scheme between September 2013 and June 2014. There are only five such table lift bridges used by streetcars in the USA with two in San Francisco and two in Portland.

Shortly after crossing the bridge the alignment enters the Historic Third Ward district with its bars and retail centres, before turning north on Milwaukee Street; the return southbound route is on Broadway. At Kilbourn Avenue the route turns east, passing the Cathedral Square Park where the opening ceremony took place. The pantograph is dropped at this point as cars enter the battery-operated section which continues north onto Jackson Street. After turning east onto Ogden Avenue the wired section begins again. Three substations along the route supply power at 750V dc.

The line continues to the single-track terminus at Burns Common close to the lakefront. Apart from at the termini and in the one-way segments the alignment is all laid to standard-gauge double-track, with battery operation on around a third of the route with the vehicles’ lithium-ion battery packs recharged from the overhead in the wired sections.

Streetcars operate every 15 minutes at peak periods and 20 minutes at other times, seven days a week. There are 18 stops on The Hop, each equipped with shelters, seating and fare and schedule information. All stops are wheelchair-accessible.

To the Lakefront by 2020

When the L line to the lakefront opens in 2020 it will be operated as a separate route.
Starting at the Waterfront, in front of Discovery World on North Lincoln Memorial Drive, the new route will turn west on Clybourn Street before joining the existing northbound alignment on Milwaukee Street. At Kilbourn Street the route turns west and returns south on Broadway. It will then follow the existing alignment south to St Pauls Avenue where it will turn east and north again on Milwaukee. It will then turn east on Michigan Street to return to the Waterfront. Three new stations will be added to the system and around two-thirds of the route will be unwired.

The five double-ended low-floor Liberty streetcars are 20.6m long with capacity to carry 150 passengers, 32 seated and with additional wheelchair spaces. The design features two double-leaf doors in the centre section for swift boarding and alighting.

The Liberty has become something of an emblem of the resurgence of the urban streetcar in the US, with over USD150m in orders since its launch at the start of the decade. The 70% low-floor vehicle is now in service in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee and Oklahoma, and further orders have been placed by Tempe, AZ, Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. The City of Milwaukee placed its USD18.6m order in November 2015.

The Liberty has also won a number of awards for its design, including the Technical Innovation of the Year at the Global Light Rail Awards in October 2015.

What of the future?

The first weeks of operation showed promising ridership figures, averaging almost 2200 passengers per day in the opening month. This has exceeded the city’s expectations, with initial projections put at 1850 passengers/day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the data from the opening weekend was impressive too, with more than 16 000 people choosing to sample the return of street-running light rail in the opening days.

Speaking to TAUT, Mayor Barrett described the system as a “game-changer” for the city. Proud of what has been achieved to date, he explained that this is just the first stage of a much-larger system planned to cut automobile-related congestion and pollution within the city. He added that he is often asked by city residents when the streetcar is coming to their neighbourhood. His reply is always the same: “As soon as we can get it there. This is just the beginning”.

Plans are already in place for significant expansion beyond 2020. The most advanced is a double-track extension with an additional three stops from the Intermodal Station along Vel R.Phillips Avenue to the impressive new USD526m Fiserv Forum sports arena and entertainment complex that opened in August 2018. This 1.2km (0.75-mile) northern projection is seen as being the significant link to the Westtown area.

The city has already approved half of the USD40m funding for the line through Tax Incremental Financing, and had hoped it would be successful in its December 2018 bid for US Department of Transportation BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) funding to cover the other half. One additional Liberty vehicle would be required for this extension.

BUILD is the replacement for the TIGER grant funding programme and is designed to fund transport projects that have a significant local or regional impact in underpinning growth and regeneration. Sadly, The Hop extension wasn’t one of the 15 projects selected for BUILD funding in December and ideas that the DoT funds would allow construction to permit a 2020 opening now look unlikely. But the city that has fought so hard for its streetcar foothold hasn’t given up hope of securing federal finance. Far from it, in fact.

Speaking to local media after receiving the news in December, Mayor Barrett said: “I’ve seen this before – and I don’t mean this in a sarcastic way. When we did the lakefront expansion, it took several swings of the bat. There will be another round after this, and we will continue to seek those federal dollars.”

Further lines are on the drawing board, although – as always – the biggest hurdle is funding. Early plans show a network north and south of the downtown area and possibly even a north-eastern extension from the current Burns Common terminus. Options exist with Brookville for another 20 Liberty streetcars to support these ambitions.

Article originally appeared in TAUT 974 (February 2019).