Frequently Asked Questions

About Streetcars

What is a streetcar?

Streetcars are passenger vehicles that operate on fixed-rail guideways on public streets. The vehicles can operate in shared traffic allowing for the preservation of the majority of on-street parking. The Milwaukee Streetcar vehicles feature low-floor boarding for easy wheelchair, stroller, bike and ADA accessibility. The low floors also make boarding faster and easier for everyone.

Make no mistake about it; Milwaukee's modern streetcars aren't "trolleys" — they are nothing like the noisy, bumpy vehicles of the last century. Today's modern streetcar vehicles are sleek, modern, smooth, quiet, efficient and comfortable.

How big is a streetcar?

Milwaukee’s streetcar will be between 65 and 85 feet long and about 8’8” wide.  Streetcar vehicles are typically about double the length and capacity of a Milwaukee County Transit System bus.

How many people will a streetcar hold?

Depending on final seat configuration, each streetcar vehicle can accommodate a range of 150 to 200 passengers.

Are streetcars noisy?

Streetcars are generally quieter than a typical bus. Powered by quiet electric motors, streetcars collect power from an electrified wire that is suspended approximately 20 feet over the travel lane in which the streetcar runs. Noise from a streetcar is generated from the wheel to rail contact, rather than from the engine, like a bus.

How is it powered?

The Milwaukee Streetcar is electric powered.  It draws electricity from an overhead contact system (OCS) with a wire, supporting poles and substations along the route. The Milwaukee Streetcar is designed with use of a single contact wire, which is much different from the thick and expansive span wire systems used for older streetcar systems. In addition, overhead wires will utilize existing street light and traffic signal poles whenever possible to reduce the potential for clutter in the street and to make the wire less visible.

How fast does a streetcar go?

The Milwaukee Streetcar vehicles will operate in shared traffic on city streets with stops every 3 to 4 blocks at speeds of approximately 25 to 30 mph.

What’s the difference between streetcars and light rail?

Compared to light rail vehicles, streetcars are typically smaller, lighter, less expensive, and usually operate in shared traffic, rather than in their own exclusive lane. They can stop more frequently and offer a more flexible service appropriate for dense city neighborhoods. Light rail is generally used for regional, commuter transit with relatively faster-moving, larger vehicles designed to transport high volumes of people between suburban and urban areas.

How much will the streetcar increase my taxes?

Not a penny. Through the use of federal funds and Tax Increment Financing Districts (TID), the City has the funds to get the 2.1 mile Phase 1 Route up and running. The Milwaukee Streetcar will not require a tax increase. In fact, by increasing the tax base along the route, the streetcar is potentially helping to expand the city’s tax base.

Further, the development of the new TID for the development of the streetcar (Lakefront Line) is playing a major role in other major investments for Milwaukee.  The new TID and the streetcar are critical to making the $122 million Couture development on the lakefront a reality.

Under state law, revenues generated from a TID cannot be spent on city services outside of the district boundaries. Despite disinformation on this topic, these TID funds cannot be used for schools, police, fire or other general city operations.

Once The Milwaukee Streetcar system is in operation, it has the potential to boost Milwaukee’s economy by attracting employers, employees, visitors and residents. The additional revenues from this economic activity would likely benefit all residents and taxpayers.

How will the streetcar’s operations be funded?

Let’s be clear: no property taxes will be used to fund the operations of The Milwaukee Streetcar.

A federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant has been secured which will pay for approximately 65% of the first 18 months of operating costs with the possibility of an extension for an additional 18 months. The introductory fare of $1 per ride plus sponsorships/advertising during years 1-3 will cover the remaining operations costs not covered by the CMAQ grant. Year 4 and beyond will be funded through a combination of fare box revenue, advertising, corporate sponsorships, federal funding opportunities, operating agreements with partners and the City of Milwaukee's parking fund, if needed.

Who will ride it?

Everyone!  It is projected that the Phase 1 route will generate approximately 1,850 rides per day and over 595,000 rides per year in the first full year of operations (2019)

The streetcar route was specifically selected to maximize ridership among a variety of different groups, such as residents, employees and visitors. In addition, The Milwaukee Streetcar route was designed to integrate well with major MCTS bus routes and corridors, such as Wisconsin Avenue, and act as a “Last Mile” connection for travelers utilizing the Intermodal Station.

The Milwaukee Streetcar will provide additional travel options for employees and residents in Milwaukee.  The City has committed to begin planning for the expansion of the streetcar system to neighboring communities further connecting residents to jobs, shopping and entertainment in downtown Milwaukee.  Streetcars can also attract riders who rarely use bus public transit because the vehicles are quieter, more attractive, and more comfortable and, with their tracks in the ground, are easy to understand and use.

Whether a first-time rider or a daily user, we are confident that people will discover the benefits and advantages of public transit, and may increase their use of the bus system as well. Additional transit riders could also be found through anticipated increases in development and density along the streetcar route. Even visitors can use the streetcar to take full advantage of everything Milwaukee has to offer.

Reasons for a Streetcar

What’s so special about streetcars?

They work. Streetcars provide attractive short-trip urban circulation and help reshape public space. They connect key activity centers and parking, provide frequent service, have an easily understood route, and use quiet electric vehicles that fit well into an urban setting. As Milwaukee implements its downtown “park once” program, visitors and residents can leave their cars in one place and see and do more with the use of a convenient streetcar. Streetcars are also considered to be pedestrian accelerators, facilitating trips that are part walking, part streetcar. Streetcar systems are also special because they can bring investment and development near their routes and help attract workers, residents and visitors to an area.

Dozens of cities across the country are operating or building fixed-rail transit systems that are realizing these benefits.

Can’t a bus do the same thing?

In short, no. Buses provide critical daily transportation service to thousands of people in Milwaukee County to access jobs, education, entertainment, shopping, health care and more. But bus routes can be changed, and this is a disadvantage for economic development compared to fixed-rail transit options, such as streetcars. Streetcars offer permanence, which better guarantees to developers and the marketplace that the system will not move tomorrow. Therefore, cities across the country are seeing robust economic development and investment along fixed-rail transit lines. And, while streetcar systems do require an initial capital investment, operating a streetcar system is often less expensive per trip or passenger mile than traditional buses. This is true for many reasons, including that streetcars have a higher capacity than a bus and can move more people more efficiently with fewer vehicles, and because streetcar vehicles last many decades longer than buses, which are typically replaced every 15 years.

Will the streetcar hurt the bus system?

Not at all. The streetcar route, service and features are designed to enhance, not replace, bus service. The Milwaukee Streetcar route was developed to coordinate with MCTS bus service. The Phase 1 route should enhance MCTS use by bringing new riders to public transportation and connecting the Intermodal Station to the many MCTS routes that intersect through downtown. Streetcars can attract riders who rarely use transit because the vehicles are quieter, more attractive and more comfortable and, with their fixed route, easy to understand and use. Then, through streetcar use, we expect people will discover the benefits and advantages of public transit, and may increase their use of the bus system as well. Additional transit riders will also be found through anticipated increases in growth and density along the streetcar route.

Can we use the $54.9 million in federal funds to expand the bus system?

No. These federal funds are exclusively for building a fixed-rail system — and buses don’t qualify.  As designated by Congress, the funds can only be used for that purpose and cannot be used for operation of the existing bus system or any other transportation initiative such as road maintenance or fixing potholes. Similar to the High Speed Rail money, if the money is not used for the streetcar, it would go to another city for fixed-rail transit. More importantly, the City understands the value of investing in infrastructure to compete in the 21st Century. Cities across the U.S. are progressing by adding multi-modal transportation choices for their residents, visitors and workers. The City recognizes a modern streetcar system is a critical component for enhancing and building a vibrant urban community.

Additionally, federal funds related to this project have already been used to expand MCTS.  At the time the federal transit grant for the streetcar was established, a $36.6 million grant was also given to Milwaukee County to purchase new buses.

Will the streetcar generate economic development?

Yes. Streetcars have been successfully used as a tool for economic development in other U.S. cities. Developers respond to infrastructure investments made by municipalities, the related increase in foot traffic as a customer base, and the security of a fixed-rail line that won’t be changed.

In fact, The Milwaukee Streetcar is already an important component to making the $122 million Couture development a reality.  Additionally, Johnson Controls, in considering the potential for a new office tower development in downtown Milwaukee, has said "a key consideration is a vibrant downtown community with convenient transportation and easy access to our facilities….As a result we also have a keen interest in the downtown streetcar project…”

Other developers have recently mentioned the streetcar as a factor in or benefit to their development:

  • In reference to plans for $20 million in upgrades at Schlitz Park, developer Gary Grunau said: “With renovated buildings, green space and an expanded array of lifestyle amenities that appeal to the needs of today’s young professional workforce, incredible momentum is underway at Schlitz Park.  We’ve created a vibrant office community successfully competing in the new economy.  Further, the arena development, streetcar construction and strong adjacent apartment market adds to the vibrancy of Schlitz Park and our excitement about the future possibilities.”
  • With plans for a new luxury apartment complex on the streetcar line, Mandel Group's Chief Operating Officer Robert Monnat said: "We think our future residents will love the opportunity to board the streetcar at their front door and easily travel throughout the downtown for shopping, work, restaurants, theater, attractions and as an easy link to the Intermodal station.  We're seeing a gradual but consistent reduction in the number of cars our downtown residents own, which can be attributed to their desire to use alternate modes of transportation. Having the downtown streetcar operational will enhance this trend and simply make it more fun to get around downtown Milwaukee to everyday destinations."
  • Milwaukee developer Joshua Jeffers is looking to build apartments in the historic Mackie Building at North Broadway and East Michigan Street, directly on the streetcar route. According to the Milwaukee Business Journal, "Jeffers plans to start construction this fall to build 25 high-end apartments in the mostly vacant office space…The project will restore the building's exterior and preserve its Grain Exchange Room." The estimated $12.4 million project also includes exterior restoration. "Another huge part of all of this is the streetcar," Jeffers said. Jeffers purchased the building in late 2014.

Will the streetcar create jobs for Milwaukee residents?

Not only will the streetcar itself provide jobs — both through construction of the system, as well as its ongoing maintenance and operation — but the secondary employment impacts of Milwaukee’s streetcar are projected to be much bigger. The City expects that the economic development spurred by the streetcar will provide new jobs for Milwaukee residents.

Under new federal regulations, the City of Milwaukee plans to require contractors to hire local workers related to construction of the streetcar system, and will implement a training program on the project. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a pilot program that newly permits state and local recipients of federal highway and federal transit funds to issue solicitations with "local hire" preferences. DOT also proposes to amend its regulations to permit the use of such hiring preferences "whenever not otherwise prohibited by Federal statute." There also will be disadvantaged business enterprise contracting requirements on the streetcar project.

Additionally, construction of the first segment of the system alone is estimated to support or create over 500 construction jobs in categories such as masons, laborers, electricians, and plumbers.  In total, the Phase 1 Route is expected to produce approximately 1,900 total jobs, including indirect and induced spending as a result of the project’s construction. 

About the Downtown Neighborhood and Traffic

Can Milwaukee support a streetcar system?

Yes. Milwaukee is the 14th most dense city in the U.S.(U.S. Census, 2013) and only one of five of the top 30 cities with the highest density to not have (or be planning) a fixed-rail transit system. The other cities lacking fixed-rail transit are Fresno, CA; Columbus, OH; Omaha, NE; and Mesa, AZ. Milwaukee is denser than Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, all of which have successful fixed-rail transit systems.

Will putting in streetcar tracks reduce the number of parking spaces downtown?

Only minimally. Because streetcars operate in shared traffic, existing travel and parking lanes will not need to be removed unless the space is needed for a streetcar stop or to provide an adequate turning radius. A streetcar stop platform is equal to about 2-3 parking spaces.
Will parking be eliminated?

I don’t understand what “shared-use” traffic means. Can you explain?

Sure thing. “Shared-use” means that something can be used for multiple purposes or serve multiple functions. Streetcars do not require their own dedicated right of way or lane and operate in the same lanes as other vehicles. This is referred to as “shared-use” or “shared” traffic as all traffic is using the same space.

Will there be special streetcar-only signals?

Probably not.  The City is working on the best way to integrate streetcar operations into the existing traffic network and signalized intersections. One option is to use a few transit-only signals for different turning movements along the route. However, optimal traffic signal systems have not been finalized at this time.

How will bike lanes work with streetcars?

Bike lanes will be placed parallel to the lane the streetcar uses. Cyclists are discouraged from traveling in the streetcar lane and are encouraged to cross the tracks at a right angle. The City of Milwaukee will also provide information to cyclists for the use of optional alternative parallel bike corridors along the streetcar route.  

Will the use of overhead wires reduce the tree canopy?

Not likely. As with all projects, the City tries to minimize any impact to trees. In other cities where streetcar systems are in place, shade trees are typically trimmed, not removed. Streetcar overhead wires and shade trees are compatible. After construction is completed, operations and maintenance provisions will require that the streetcar contractor maintain/trim trees to minimize impacts to the overhead wire system. Depending on the specific street being served, it is possible that isolated trees may need to be removed or relocated during construction and installation of the overhead wires. Conflicts may arise with relocation of existing utilities or adequate clearance to meet code requirements.

Can firetrucks serve buildings along the streetcar route?

The Milwaukee Streetcar is designed to accommodate existing buildings, infrastructure and typical uses of the downtown Milwaukee environment.  In cases of emergency, the City will have the capability of disabling overhead electricity at localized locations so that emergency workers can get to buildings in the downtown area.  In extreme cases, the overhead wires could be removed for access to a particular building.  Throughout the final design process, representatives from fire, police, and other emergency services will be engaged to assist in developing operating procedures to allow first responders to safely access all locations along the streetcar route.

Can parades occur along the route?

The Milwaukee Streetcar is designed to accommodate existing buildings, infrastructure and typical uses of the downtown Milwaukee environment.  For example, current parade routes for Milwaukee’s major annual parades have been analyzed in coordination with the streetcar route.  In cases where the streetcar route intersects or overlaps a parade route, the design team will develop design solutions to accommodate these special events, including placing section insulators at strategic locations in order to disable and move overhead electricity at localized locations without affecting the power to the remainder of the system.  Operating procedures are also being formulated to accommodate both the streetcar system and special events in downtown Milwaukee. Coordination and communication with various stakeholders in the downtown area will be taking place over the next few years in preparation of the streetcar system operations.

I don’t live or work downtown. How does this benefit me?

A vibrant central business district benefits the entire region. It is a primary driving force for economic wealth in the region, with the region’s highest volume of jobs, entertainment and destinations. The City expects the development of the streetcar to help expand the tax base and enhance downtown through new commercial and housing development, new and expanded businesses, and higher occupancy rates, which benefits the entire City. And many people who don’t live or work downtown visit — for sporting events, restaurants, festivals and other activities. They’ll likely use the streetcar, too, because it will be easy to come downtown, park your car once and then conveniently travel the area as you use the streetcar to hop from shopping to restaurants to theater or other entertainment. 

Additionally, construction of the first segment of the system alone is estimated to support or create over 500 construction jobs in categories such as masons, laborers, electricians, and plumbers. 

Finally, this first segment is considered a starter system and has been planned as a backbone for a larger system with future expansion to other areas of the City.

About Streetcar Service & Operations

When will streetcar service begin?

The Milwaukee Streetcar is projected to begin passenger service in mid-2018. Factors that could influence the final timeline include: modifications in final engineering, vehicle delivery timelines, utility relocations, and Federal Transit Administration approvals.

Why this route?

The initial route connects riders with housing, jobs, attractions, hotels, shopping, dining, other transportation options, parking and more. It serves the Intermodal Station and its 1.4 million annual users; the Third Ward (the fastest-growing neighborhood in Southeast Wisconsin); East Town (with the largest concentration of jobs in the state); and the lower east side (the highest-density residential neighborhood in state). It was developed through a ridership analysis process and also took into account opportunities to tap into economic and property development while enhancing, rather than duplicating, other transportation options. Remember, this is only a starter route.  The City has a vision for an expanded streetcar system that serves additional neighborhoods.

How much will it cost to ride the streetcar?

More detailed financial planning for operation of the system, including fares, sponsorships and other revenues is currently underway. When complete, the Financial Plan will provide a clearer picture of anticipated cost to ride the streetcar. However, the City is currently projecting an initial fare of $1 per ride.   

How do you pay to use the streetcar?

Unlike most traditional bus service, where riders pay once they are already on board, The Milwaukee Streetcar will use “off vehicle” ticketing, meaning that riders will pay for their ride at a pay station outside the vehicle near the stop. This allows for faster “all-door boarding,” using both the front doors and side doors of the vehicle and without the delay of on-board payment.

What will the hours of operation for the streetcar be?

Hours of operation are still being finalized.  Initial plans call for:
Monday through Friday
5 AM to 7 AM – Arriving every 15 minutes
7 AM to 10 PM – Arriving every 10 minutes
10 PM to 12 AM – Arriving every 15 minutes
7AM to 12 AM – Arriving every 15 minutes
7 AM to 10 PM – Arriving every 15 minutes

What about disabled passengers?

The Milwaukee Streetcar will be designed to safely and efficiently serve disabled passengers. All vehicles and stops will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate the safety of disabled passengers. The vehicles will provide allocated space and/or priority seating for individuals who use wheelchairs.

The streetcar will feature low floor level boarding, meaning the streetcar will have multiple entrances with no steps between the exterior platform and the interior passenger cabin. Low floor boarding improves accessibility for passengers and is well suited for people who use push chairs, wheelchairs, motorized scooters or who have difficulty walking up and down stairs.

Additionally, streetcar vehicles will provide both visual and audible route information so that riders with hearing and visual impairments can easily use this transit service.

Can I bring a stroller onto the streetcar?

Yes. The modern streetcar’s interior layout is designed to allow strollers to be brought on board using wide passenger doors that are level with the station platforms. In addition, the vehicles will also accommodate bikes and wheelchairs.

Can bikes be brought onto the streetcar?

Yes. The modern streetcar’s interior layout is designed to allow bicycles to be brought on board using wide passenger doors that are level with the station platforms.  Once on board, passengers with bikes may use specialized bike racks for safe storage of their bike during their ride. In addition, the vehicles will also accommodate strollers and wheelchairs.

How long will I have to wait at a streetcar stop before I can board?

Streetcars are designed to operate frequently. Current plans provide service every 10 to 15 minutes.

Are the streetcars center-running or curb-running?

Both.  In some areas, the streetcars will run in the existing curb-aligned driving lane.  In other sections, The Milwaukee Streetcar will use the center lane. Use of both of these lanes will provide an efficient fixed-rail transit system that is flexible to accommodate variations in downtown Milwaukee roadways and intersections.

How will streetcars manage a busy street of shared traffic, alongside other cars and pedestrians?

Streetcar operators will navigate the route just like any other car, bus or truck driver, obeying traffic rules and rights of way.  And, just like any other vehicle operating on city streets, streetcars are equipped with turn signals, side view mirrors, and emergency braking systems.

People driving their own cars along the route should think of it as being similar to driving behind or next to a bus. It’s just as easy.  Similar to an automobile’s interaction with buses, car drivers are encouraged to keep a safe distance behind the streetcars and avoid sudden right turns in front of the streetcar vehicle.

What happens when it snows?

Business as usual. Streetcars can operate effectively in snow conditions, but similar to all vehicles (including buses) they require their travel lanes to be plowed and are subject to service limitations in very severe weather and snowstorms.

What happens if power goes out?

Safety and other emergency procedures for the streetcar system are still being formulated. However, in the unlikely event of an extended power outage, streetcar vehicles would be towed back to the transit center with a specialized vehicle.

What happens if the streetcar breaks down or there is a car accident/incident that blocks the streetcar?

Safety and other emergency procedures for the streetcar system are still being formulated. In the case of a streetcar accident or breakdown, streetcar vehicles would be towed back to the transit center with a specialized vehicle. In the case of a car accident, emergency response teams will move the car away from the streetcar as soon as possible.

About Safety and Accessibility

Are the streetcars ADA compliant?

Yes. The modern streetcar’s interior layout is designed to accommodate wheelchairs using wide passenger doors that are level with the station platforms. The streetcars have level floor areas with substantial standing areas that can be used by wheelchairs. In addition, vehicles will also accommodate bikes and strollers.

Are the rails in the pavement safe for bicyclists and pedestrians?

Yes. The rails embedded in the travel lanes are safe for bicyclists and pedestrians to contact as they do not contain electric current. As with any street infrastructure, bicyclists and pedestrians should use caution when traveling next to or crossing the streetcar tracks. Prior to opening the system, the City plans to launch an awareness campaign to educate bicyclists and pedestrians about moving across and adjacent to the streetcar embedded rail.

About Construction

What will construction impacts looked like?

The long-term benefits of infrastructure improvements are substantial, but we recognize the short-term construction impacts can be an inconvenience that the City will do its best to mitigate.  Currently, the project is in Final Design.  As soon as those plans are complete and a contractor is selected to construct the mainline (projected to be early 2016), The City we will work with the contractor and affected stakeholders on issues of construction staging, impacts and related accommodations and support. 

Throughout construction, the City will implement its successful Support for Business program.  Throughout streetcar construction, the City will communicate regularly with those who have homes, businesses, jobs and/ or property along the route. To sign up for construction news updates, please visit this page.



The City of Milwaukee's official streetcar project website.