Streetcar Comparison: Milwaukee vs. Portland

By Collin Roth

As the costs have mounted and the public grows more and more wary of the Milwaukee streetcar project,  it’s beneficial to take a look at the most well know modern streetcar project in the United States, the Portland streetcar system. Heralded as a model among streetcar enthusiasts, Portland, Oregon built their streetcar system in four phases with the initial phase opening in July 2001. The latest phase was completed in 2007 to complete a 4 mile loop of double track trafficked by ten streetcars.

Portland’s streetcar system cost a total of $103 million at an average of $12.9 million per track mile. The initial 2.4 mile loop, comparable to Milwaukee’s planned 2.1 mile loop, cost $56.9 million. Milwaukee’s initial line is expected to cost $64.6 million, with an added estimated cost of up to $70 million for the relocation of utilities.

Of the $64.6 million price tag for Milwaukee’s line, $54.9 million is allocated in federal funds with local property taxpayers on the hook for the additional $9.7 million.

Portland built their 2.4 mile loop with the majority of funds coming from an increase in city parking rates netting $28.6 million and a Local Improvement District of $9.6 million from tax property owners within two blocks of the line. The rest of the funds were allocated by federal, state, and local governments.

But while the costs might be similar for the two lines, other important factors do not seem to line up in favor of the Milwaukee project.

For starters, Portland has seen three straight years of nearly 4 million annual riders. According to the Milwaukee Connector Study, the Milwaukee streetcar can expect just 665,000 rides per year in 2015. And with the hypothetical route extensions, ridership might increase to 1.66 million per year in 2030. For a price tag total of $95.8 million for the initial route and potential extensions, Milwaukee is expected to see only 40% of the annual ridership of the Portland system.

Furthermore, the operating costs would always be heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Fares, promotions, and sponsorships only account for $500,000 of a $5.5 million annual operating cost in Portland, or just 9%. The other 91% of the operating costs ($5 million) come from TriMet (a regional transit authority) and the City of Portland, both funded by the taxpayers.

It is difficult to imagine the Milwaukee streetcar doing any better with at best, just 40% of the ridership of the Portland line.

So for $7.7 million more than the initial Portland loop, Milwaukee is on the verge of creating a streetcar line using funds from a bankrupt Federal government to pay for a line with annual operating costs heavily subsidized by local taxpayers that may only carry 40% of the riders of the model upon which it was based. All of this on top of the enormous $70 million cost to relocate utilities in downtown Milwaukee.

In a survey taken last week by the Milwaukee Business Journal, an astounding 77% of respondents said the Milwaukee streetcar project should be scrapped. The taxpayers of Milwaukee and the ratepayers of Southeast Wisconsin see this project for what it is: another big government boondoggle in the waiting foisted on taxpayers by politicians disinterested in costs or utility.

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