This blog post is part of a series on rebuilding and reimagining America’s infrastructure for NLC’s Rebuild With Us campaign.
In just a short time, after years of work and coordination, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will welcome its newest arrival to the streets of downtown: The first ‘Hop’ streetcar has arrived.
Working in coordination with local businesses like the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, the Hop’s initial 2.5-mile line will provide improved connectivity for 80,000 downtown workers and 25,000 downtown residents as well as the millions of visitors who pass through the city. Already, the first car has arrived for testing — and the track structure is about 90% complete.
Milwaukee has also shown that they are dedicated to ensuring that the $128 million transit investment will support local jobs.
Currently, the city is taking applications to become a Hop operator. The project will also support a few hundred construction jobs for masons, laborers, electricians, plumbers and others — and even more jobs through other connected spending, suppliers and subcontractors.
For cities, building and operating new infrastructure like the Hop is a great opportunity to generate new, long-term employment opportunities and to ensure that education and training opportunities are in place that enable local residents to take advantage of these jobs. Through a comprehensive regional workforce strategy spearheaded by Employ Milwaukee, the federally-funded local workforce development board serving Milwaukee County, job seekers are able to receive the training and support they need to connect to these critical high-demand jobs.
They are also thinking about the business side as well, and how to help small and diverse emerging businesses compete fairly for contracts associated with this project.
For Milwaukee, the driving goal is to boost the economy — while improving quality of life for residents and visitors. Like many streetcars in other cities, the Hop will serve as an anchor investment in the area. Having a fixed line of infrastructure lets developers plan around it, adding both residential and business projects to the area.
Estimates say that more than $205 million will go towards new developments by the Hop’s second year of operation. Crucially, the line will service the Intermodal Station (Amtrak and intercity bus), allowing intercity travelers to easily transfer or “hop” to other modes of transit. This interconnectivity investment in downtown Milwaukee will easily bring people to work and visitors to their destinations.
Alderman Bob Bauman understands that this project will accomplish the dual goals of improving quality of life for residents while also stimulating economic growth. “This project is a long-term investment in our city and will bring new job opportunities of all kinds to city residents,” he says.
“We are constructing this not only with federal investment and shared local investment, but we intend to capture the value created from this project to pay for it; we also want citizens to get to experience it for a year before we ask them to pay a dime. We think everyone who takes the Hop will see this is bigger than a streetcar – this is about how we can grow and imagine a great downtown Milwaukee.”
The Hop didn’t come without work — they city had to compete and receive a federal USDOT Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to help fund the project. TIGER, along with another federal grant, are contributing approximately half of the capital cost. The Hop also has some local friends, including the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, which agreed to a $10 million dollar sponsorship deal that will cover the local share of operating costs and provide free rides for the first year.
Plans are underway to expand the streetcar to serve the new Milwaukee Bucks arena and the convention center. The Council has already approved $20 million in incremental tax financing for their side of the costs, but they will likely need to see stable transit funding from the federal government to hit service level and expansion goals.
Cities like Milwaukee need Congress to understand that projects like the Hop are long-term agreements and shifting funding without notice can really disrupt plans for growth in a community where everyone is pitching in. The federal government should be the most stable partner when it comes to infrastructure.
Programs like TIGER, which was recently renamed the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant program, has proven essential to building infrastructure that can return investment that supports the overall goals of cities both large and small. The recent Congressional increase of $1.5 billion shows the support and potential of BUILD, and cities across the country will no doubt want to compete to bring a Hop program to their city or perhaps another project brings the growth and jobs that Milwaukee is pushing for.
About the Author: Brittney Kohler is NLC’s Program Director for Transportation and Infrastructure.