Milwaukee’s streetcar service, The Hop, opened its first significant route extension on April 11, ushering in a new era for public transit in the city.

The landmark expansion, presented by Potawatomi Casino Hotel, included full service to the Lakefront via the brand-new transit concourse inside The Couture building, enhancing accessibility to one of the city’s most scenic areas.

Located near the lakefront in downtown Milwaukee, the event showcased the culmination of extensive planning and development efforts aimed at enhancing regional connectivity and accessibility. The Couture, a pivotal element of these efforts, now hosts a state-of-the-art travel concourse that promises to transform public transit in the area.

The journey to this moment began in 2012 when plans for The Couture were first unveiled, with updates in 2014 incorporating a dedicated transit hub for The Hop’s L-Line. However, it was not until 2021 that construction on The Couture commenced, with the streetcar tracks laid out but remaining idle pending the completion of the tower.

After initial limited operations that began on October 29, 2023, the L-Line commenced full service, operating seven days a week starting at noon on April 11. The expansion not only increased the service days but also marked the first time The Hop utilized the Lakefront station, following ongoing construction at The Couture.

With the line fully operational, seamlessly connecting The Couture site to Michigan, Jackson, Clybourn, and Jefferson Streets, access to the city’s lakefront attractions can benefit from the and enhanced connection.

Rick Barrett, CEO of Barrett Lo Visionary Development, reflected on the project’s journey. He said good things take time and extraordinary things take longer, expressing gratitude towards all partners involved in bringing this ambitious project to fruition.

“In 2014, the partnership with Milwaukee County, our team altered plans for a purely residential development on this site to include a transit concourse that could accommodate Milwaukee County buses and ensure the county could take advantage of federal funds earmarked for transit purposes,” said Barrett. “Ultimately, this multimodal transportation hub will serve countless visitors annually, directing them to area retail, downtown businesses, nearby attractions, and public lakefront pathways.”

Mayor Cavalier Johnson encouraged attendees to consider the diverse groups that will benefit from the enhanced transit facilities, from businesspeople to festival-goers, and local residents.

“The goal of more transportation choices is taking shape all across the city, as we add more bikeways and improve the ability for people to get around the way that they want,” said Mayor Johnson. “Somebody once told me that where transit goes money flows. So we want to continue to build up our community here.”

The Couture’s transit concourse is set to become a hub of activity, coinciding with the building welcoming its first residents this month. This multimodal transportation hub will also serve as the eastern terminus for the Milwaukee County Transit System’s (MCTS) Bus Rapid Transit line, CONNECT 1, starting June 2, further enhancing its utility.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley highlighted the project’s significance in leveraging a former county-owned site for major transit-oriented development along the scenic lakefront.

“We can become the healthiest county in the state of Wisconsin. But in order to accomplish that, we need safe, reliable public transit options,” said County Executive Crowley. “We are envisioning the next step of public transit right here within Milwaukee County – a second bus rapid transit line that will operate along 27th Street.”

The CONNECT 1 BRT line, launched in June 2023, is designed to provide faster, more efficient service across Milwaukee’s east-west corridor, now connecting directly to The Couture. This integration is poised to significantly improve access to downtown and the lakefront, especially during the busy summer festival and tourism season.

In addition to transit improvements, there are ongoing discussions about further enhancing pedestrian infrastructure around The Couture, including the construction of pedestrian bridges connecting to the Lakefront Gateway Plaza.

However, these projects are contingent on economic outcomes from The Couture and potential freeway redevelopment, with Alderman Robert Bauman noting that funding would likely depend on tax incremental financing driven by new developments.

Alderman Bauman, a longtime advocate for the streetcar project, described the unveiling as a joyous occasion, recalling the pivotal moment when the addition of The Couture’s transit concourse helped shift public and corporate opinion in favor of fixed transit.

“The lakefront line was the missing piece of the puzzle that brought a substantial percentage of the corporate community to the realization that maybe this makes sense,” said Alderman Bauman.

As Milwaukee moves forward, The Couture’s travel concourse and the full operation of The Hop’s L-Line symbolize a leap toward a more connected and accessible city, setting a precedent for future developments in urban transit and community connectivity.

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Lee Matz