Dan Shafer is the founder of The Recombobulation Area, an award-winning, reader-supported weekly column and online publication. Subscribe HERE.

In and around Milwaukee, there always seems to be some kind of transportation debate happening.

Typically, it’s not a particularly enjoyable conversation. We had a decade-plus of interminable debates about the streetcar (OH GOD THE STREETCAR) and that debate still rages on in the only place where it truly belongs—Facebook comments sections, of course. The 794 debate seems to have supplanted the streetcar in conversational ubiquity (somewhat), but with nothing major really changing in that conversation since we covered it last summer, it has started to feel just as circular.

As these debates continue to grind on, though, the larger landscape is starting to feel different. Perhaps now, in 2024, we’ve entered a new phase when we talk about transit, when we talk about transportation, when we talk about getting around here in Milwaukee. Perhaps this moment we’ve arrived at is an inflection point for transportation in this city. We might even be on the verge of something.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve attended a number of transit-related events around Milwaukee. I was at the Washington Park Senior Center on April 30, for the public involvement meeting on “Reimagining WIS 175” (aka the Stadium Freeway). The next day, I was at Potawatomi Casino Hotel for the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s Viewpoint Luncheon on “Big Transportation Decisions for Metro Milwaukee.” And just this week, I was at 3rd Street Market Hall for a conference on “Why Transit Matters,” presented by MobiliSE, a regional transit advocacy group.

Having been a business news reporter for several years at multiple publications in Milwaukee, I’ve been to a gazillion panels and talks and luncheons and whatnot. Covering transit and infrastructure around Milwaukee more in depth over the past few years, I’ve been to many a public involvement meeting. They’re mostly…fine. Usually a bit underwhelming, but informative, cordial, sometimes even compelling.

There’s been a different energy to these, of late. At the meeting where a host of options were unveiled for the future of the Stadium Freeway, the building was packed, with far more in attendance than similar meetings prior. At the Policy Forum’s event, there was enthusiasm surrounding proposals for freeway removal and bolstering transit projects, with even the typical opponents to progress—the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce— at least engaging in the conversation. The concept of a Regional Transit Authority was at least entertained. At the MobiliSE event, the challenges and successes of the Milwaukee County Transit System were in focus, and the innovative program that is FlexRide was highlighted for its continued growth.

As Rob Henken of the Policy Forum pointed out at the Viewpoint Luncheon, the first major capital investment in transit the region has seen in decades came to fruition last summer with the launch of Milwaukee County’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, “Connect 1.” It seems notable that controversy around that project barely registered above a murmur. A far larger BRT line—”Connect 2,” the North-South BRT, running along 27th Street from Bayshore in Glendale to IKEA in Oak Creek—is far along in the planning stages, and people largely seem pretty good with it. A third BRT line along National Avenue is also being discussed.

In the city, under Mayor Cavalier Johnson, the Department of Public Works is implementing all kinds of creative measures to address reckless driving in part by redesigning streets and building a safer street grid. If there’s grumbling about this, it sure didn’t materialize at the ballot box, where Johnson was just re-elected with more than 80% of the vote. The city is building out a substantial new bike lane network, and has more than 50 traffic calming projects in the works for 2024.

All of this together forms a picture of change. The way this city and region approaches transportation is unquestionably going in a different direction.

Whether the full scope of change will be realized is another question. A squishy middle-ground is always more likely than a bold decision.

And significant challenges still lie ahead. As noted repeatedly in the MobiliSE event, the Wisconsin State Legislature shifting funding for mass transit from the transportation fund to the general fund, putting those dollars in competition with health care and education and so many other needs, has the potential to cause real problems.

But talking about tearing down 794 or the Stadium Freeway doesn’t feel as unrealistic as it once did. The mayor’s office is much more proactive about street design and much more results-oriented than the previous administration. If there’s not going to be much controversy about new BRT lines, the County should keep advancing those kinds of plans, along with bringing back temporary lines like the ones for Summerfest. Adding other new bus routes doesn’t seem unrealistic, after the new sales tax saved the bus system from a fiscal cliff. Perhaps now we can approach even bigger ideas, like doubling MCTS’ annual operating budget of $170 million (which is just a fraction of the $1.74 billion cost to rebuild and widen I-94 East-West), or significantly expanding The Hop. Perhaps leaders will take WisDOT to task for its awful and dangerous state highways that cut through the city, like Fond du Lac and Capitol. Perhaps we can talk about actual regional solutions for transit. Maybe we really are actually getting somewhere. The new transit hub at the Couture, bringing together the BRT and The Hop right to the lakefront in a brand new way, will start seeing streetcars and buses and more loop through it. That’s sure going to be something different for this city.

As the rest of this year unfolds, with the 2024 election just months away and the RNC breathing down our necks (only about 60 days away!), we’re all going to get drawn into the vortex of campaign politics in one of the only states that will determine the outcome of the election, these issues might fall out of focus. These aren’t really campaign issues, after all.

But we can’t let this momentum subside; we can’t let this moment pass. We are at an inflection point for transit in this town. It’s undeniable. There’s a better path forward in our sights, and we need to seize it.

Want more Milwaukee Record? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and/or support us on Patreon.


Let’s argue about the streetcar’s 2024 ridership numbers

What should be done with 794?

18 pictures of people taking pictures of the opening of the streetcar’s Couture Transit Concourse

About The Author

Avatar photo

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the weekly column and online publication, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer, where he's probably tweeting about the Bucks.