Congressman Bryan Steil is still waiting to hear back from U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about his request to please make it clear Milwaukee does not have to run “The Hop” streetcar through a closed construction site on Sundays — and Sundays only — during the winter in order to meet the requirements of a federal grant.
City of Milwaukee officials started running the streetcar on the so-called “L-Line” last Sunday — although the first train was reportedly delayed a couple hours because construction workers left some equipment on the tracks. They apparently didn’t fathom that anyone would possibly want to run a streetcar through a closed construction site where no one can get on or off.
As noted in a prior Badger Institute piece, the city has suggested the odd decision to open the L-Line is because of a federal grant deadline — although they have not requested that the deadline be waived.
“A requirement of the grant is to begin service by 10/31/2023 on the L-Line,” wrote Tiffany Shepherd, a marketing and communications officer for the Department of Public Works in an email to the Badger Institute in October. “We could have requested an extension, but choose to use this an opportunity to provide access as soon as possible, even though it’s only one day a week. By operating on Sundays, we are providing the opportunity for the operations staff to become more acquainted with the new L-Line and how it interacts with the M-Line and become ready for the busy summer of 2024. This will also allow the public to become familiar with the L-Line, as this will be the first time they will be seeing and interacting with the streetcar on Michigan St. and Clybourn St.”
Steil’s subsequent letter to Buttigieg requested that he waive the grant requirement, noted that both he and Buttigieg have “an obligation to the people we serve to reduce government waste” and called on him to take “action to save Milwaukee taxpayers thousands of dollars.”
“As you may know, the Hop is a $128 million streetcar transportation project largely funded with federal grant dollars” through the Federal Transit Administration. “It opened in November 2018 and operates on a 2.1-mile route in downtown Milwaukee. For 2023, the average daily ridership is 1,408 individuals, a 74.5% decrease since its peak in 2018,” he wrote.
“The Hop has long faced substantial concerns about the financial viability of the project, its dependence on federal dollars, and questions about demand for the service. A federal requirement mandating operation into a construction site, which is unlikely to generate significant ridership, further exacerbates these concerns.”
Steil’s office did receive confirmation from Buttigieg’s office that it received the letter, but as of Thursday had gotten “no direct response to the letter itself or the request to waive the grant requirement,” according to Chavonne Ludick, Steil’s communications director.
I asked a spokesperson for the City of Milwaukee if the city will stop running streetcars through the construction site if Steil is successful with Buttigieg.
“Right now, we are operating under the current guidelines,” she emailed back, not really answering the question.
I also asked her how many riders rode the L-Line last Sunday but was told they don’t have an official count yet.
Here’s more background:
- May 11, 2023: Legislature protects Milwaukeeans from $15-per-rider fare-free trolley folly
- Nov. 19, 2020: The Hop: Federal monies create a ‘financial anvil’ for Milwaukee
- April 24, 2019: The Hop’s influence is a flop: Claims that the streetcar swayed major development decisions in downtown Milwaukee are off track
- A video: Taxpayers Taken for a Ride
- The chapter on The Hop and other streetcars (“Loss of Street Smarts” on page 39) in our book, Federal Grant$tanding.
Mike Nichols is the President of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
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