By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
On Wednesday, Americans for Prosperity launched a new initiative to let the public be heard about Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's proposed downtown electric streetcar loop.
The organization has set up a website, "A Streetcar Named Disaster," where the public can sign a petition asking that the costly streetcar be put before the public in a referendum.
The streetcar would run from the southern end of Farwell Avenue on Milwaukee's East Side to the Intermodal Station on St Paul Avenue. However, this streetcar system is just the starter kit. Planners already have a second phase on the drawing table to extend the streetcar further up the East Side along Farwell Avenue and to the old Pabst Brewery location. From there, fantasies run wild with thoughts of extending the streetcar system to UW-Milwaukee's campus, General Mitchell International Airport, Miller Park, into the Riverwest neighborhood, the Bronzeville area, even along Fond Du Lac Avenue.
It's like kids building a toy wooden train set that just keeps going and going, only the streetcar system is a lot more expensive. Just building the initial phase of the proposed streetcar system will cost $64.6 million, including $9.7 million in city taxpayer money via a Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) district. The rest comes from federal transportation funding. However, that does not include the cost of relocating public utility infrastructure, another $58.3 million, nearly doubling the cost of the streetcar project.
The city of Milwaukee believes that the cost of moving the utility's infrastructure should be borne by the ratepayers, meaning WE Energies' customers would foot the bill for a significant portion of the streetcar's costs even if they do not live in the city of Milwaukee. And this is why the fate of this project is important to those who live outside the city of Milwaukee - the Mayor wants ratepayers to pay the biggest share of this project even though they have no direct say in the matter.
The MacIver Institute's Brett Healy has asked the Public Service Commission to rule on whether the utility ratepayers should pay for the utility infrastructure to move to accommodate the building of the streetcar tracks, or if the city of Milwaukee will be responsible for the costs. Healy is acting as a private citizen and a WE Energies customer in the matter.
The West Allis common council has already voted to oppose the streetcar development out of concern that the city's residents would be stuck paying for a streetcar system none of them want and from which few would find any benefit. In the usual spirit of "regional cooperation" from Milwaukee, Alderman Bob Baumann, a streetcar supporter, told the Business Journal, "these suburbanites better watch out." "Opposition to projects can go both ways," he said.
On the "Streetcar Named Disaster" website is a study by the MacIver Institute that shows how the claims of the streetcar enthusiasts regarding economic development are exaggerated. The study shows how in Portland, the usual celebratory story of development from a fixed-rail mass transit system, development occurred because the Portland city council heavily subsidized development along their streetcar system. Even then it was likely that the development along the streetcar line was only development that did not occur elsewhere in Portland.
The study also discusses how a streetcar system does not attract new transportation riders but instead merely moves the riders from one form of transportation to another, including bicycle traffic. (You would think Portlanders would riot over any system that reduces bicycle usage.) This is of special concern to Milwaukeeans because the proposed streetcar system operates alongside existing Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus routes. The study points out buses operating the same route would have operating costs of just 17% of the operating costs of the streetcar system. That's without the additional costs of the fixed infrastructure of the streetcar, and unlike the streetcar the buses are more flexible to meet a city's changing needs because they do not require a fixed rail to operate.
Despite these concerns, Milwaukee officials seem determined to press on with the streetcar plan without giving the public a chance to vote on the matter. Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan estimates 70% of the public is opposed to the boondoggle. The website, "A Streetcar Named Disaster," has a petition for the public to sign asking the Milwaukee Common Council and the mayor to put the proposed streetcar up for referendum.
According to David Fladeboe, the Communications and Policy Director for Americans for Prosperity - Wisconsin, the petition has thousands of signatures already, including half from zip codes in Milwaukee. They are going to keep collecting signatures to eventually present them to the Milwaukee Common Council.
Everyone in Milwaukee and the surrounding communities are invited to sign. It isn't just Milwaukeeans that will be paying for the Streetcar Nobody Desires. Everyone can take this opportunity to let the Milwaukee Common Council know what the public thinks of this giant waste of money. If the Common Council will not listen to common sense, perhaps they will listen to the public.