Milwaukee County has received federal approval to enter the project development phase of the East-West Bus Rapid Transit project that would connect downtown Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex in Wauwatosa.

The approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation allows the county and the Milwaukee County Transit System to begin environmental and engineering studies on the nine-mile route, according to a news release.

“This approval is more great news for Milwaukee County,” said County Executive Chris Abele. “When I announced that we would pursue this project we made it clear the goal was to create a fast, modern and affordable way to connect people to jobs, school and economic opportunities. As we move into this next phase we will continue to work with the community, riders and our partners on the Milwaukee County Board and Milwaukee and Wauwatosa common councils to make this plan a reality.”

The project is estimated to cost up to $48 million, but final estimates will depend on the route, stations and design elements of the bus lanes and buses. Federal funds are expected to cover 80 percent of the expenses and, by entering into the project development phase, any money spent on the environmental and engineering studies can be applied as the local match of the project, according to the release.

Spokesperson for the Milwaukee County Transit System Brendan Conway has said the new transit system would reduce travel time in one-way trips.

Bus Rapid Transit vehicles are often specialized and feature unique branding and improved transit stations to enhance the experience for riders. The buses may also be equipped with road features such as traffic signal priority to help them maintain schedules.

The proposed project has been a hot-button issue in Wauwatosa for some time. In March, Wauwatosa parents in the Ravenswood neighborhood protested the alternative mode of transportation as they walked their children to school. Some parents said the danger of the already congested, busy roads could be elevated even more by the addition of a bus rapid transit line.

The Wauwatosa Common Council gave its endorsement for the proposed system in a 10-5 vote in June. The council approved a locally preferred alternative route that would connect major employment hubs and run from downtown Milwaukee to the Swan Boulevard Park and Ride in Wauwatosa, primarily along Wisconsin Avenue and Bluemound Road.

The county executive's upcoming budget — due Oct. 1 — is expected to include funding to continue planning for the Bus Rapid Transit project.

Transit officials have predicted the service could attract thousands of new riders in less than 20 years. Further, more than 6,100 cars could be taken off the road through the service, reducing the number of miles people drive by up to 17 million a year.

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