You Would Pay for Milwaukee’s Expensive Trolley Folly

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Mayor Barrett's Trolley Folly Route

A city of Milwaukee Common Council committee has given the go ahead on building a street car system from Milwaukee’s lower east side to Milwaukee’s downtown. Nobody is really sure how much the system is even going to cost and, due to some utility issues, they’re not even sure where the street cars are going to actually run.

Perhaps it will be worth every pun on the Tennessee William’s title, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It’s the “Streetcars Named Expensive.” Or it’s “A Streetcar Named Pointless.” WTMJ-AM’s Charlie Sykes called it, “A Streetcar Named Boondoggle.” If the system does get built, the first two cars need to be named Blanche and Stella or I won’t be held responsible for Milwaukee’s lack of imagination.

The cars can be christened with bottles of Schlitz, as long as we’re going to the future backwards. Milwaukee can even ask Lenny and Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley to do the christening.

Lenny, Squiggy, Tennessee Williams, would all be perfectly appropriate for the new streetcars. The last time streetcars ran in Milwaukee was in 1958. Milwaukeeans chose to abandon the streetcars for the new-fangled diesel buses, nine years after a study recommended getting rid of the streetcars. A 1949 Milwaukee Journal article about the study said, “Factors weighed in determining the best type of transport vehicle for Milwaukee included the density of passenger traffic, the effect upon streets for automobile use, speed in transporting passengers and the maximum inducement for use of public transportation systems.” (See this interactive graphic from our friends at the MacIver News Service for more on the old system).

Of course, the history of the streetcar is the history of transportation. Man’s desire is to cover greater distances at greater speed with greater individual freedom. When the first electric streetcar started rolling in Appleton, WI, in 1882, the automobile was still a new invention. Trains were the fastest means of transportation, and for cross-town traffic people could either walk or use actual four-legged horsepower. By the time Appleton rid itself of streetcars in 1930, the automobile was well-established and General Billy Mitchell had proved the superiority of the airplane in warfare. The streetcar died in Appleton where it began, and across the country other cities replaced them, too.

Technology advanced beyond the narrow rails of a fixed streetcar system. People found better means of transportation that were not tied to fix rails. Buses and cars were more flexible, allowing for changes due to changes in ridership, traffic patterns, and even road construction.

Ironically, some of the bus routes still reflect the routes run by the streetcars until the 1950s. The number 15 still runs down Oakland Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee.

Now, like Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid resisting the future by throwing away his bicycle, so-called progressives are pushing for an expensive return to 19th century technology in Milwaukee. Former Congressman David Obey and Senator Herb Kohl, old enough to have ridden the old streetcars, did Wisconsinites no favor when they finally settled how $91.5 million in federal transportation aid was divvied up. They decided $54.9 million should be spent on the new streetcars. (The rest went to the Milwaukee County bus system.)

Milw. Co. Transit (Bus) Route Map

This fixed rail system does not explore any new territory. Not one passenger on the proposed streetcars would be unable to reach their destination using the existing public transportation system. Existing bus routes already cover the same ground. The buses do it without laying down an expensive new infrastructure, tearing up streets, relocating utilities, or eliminating public parking.

Not one person would be traveling to a job that they couldn’t on the bus line. Not one person would be traveling to an entertainment venue that they couldn’t on the bus line. Not one person would even be traveling to another transportation means, like the airport, bus station or train station, that they couldn’t already reach using the county bus system.

If the city planners want the exact same route as the proposed streetcars, a slight change to the route 30 bus could accomplish it for far less than $54.9 million, and the operating costs are already accounted for. Easily done, all for the bother of printing a new schedule. That’s yet another advantage of the bus system over any fixed-rail system.

Route 30

Unlike the proposed streetcar system, the route 30 even takes passengers beyond the downtown to places like UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University and even the North Side of Milwaukee. It can even reach into the African-American community, something the current plans for the proposed streetcars seems to avoid for some reason.

Mayor Tom Barrett was quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel saying that after it’s built, people would wonder why it wasn’t being extended to Miller Park. No, we won’t. To get from the East Side of Milwaukee to Miller Park just takes a free transfer on Wisconsin Avenue. For the rest of the metro area, there are Freeway Flyer routes.

Oh, and ourĀ  own cars…

Despite the redundancy and the history of the proposed streetcars, the Milwaukee mayor is determined to spend the “free” federal money. This is even though nobody knows at this point what the final costs would be, who will pick up the tab for the utility infrastructure change costs (hint: likely ratepayers in the entire state), or how the city can afford the ongoing operating expense.

The city is estimating the local share of the project to be $9.7 million. Of course, that was before the cost of relocating the utility infrastructure along the route became an issue. The annual operating expense is estimated at $2.62 million, or $3.94 per rider (based upon the city’s probably inflated estimated ridership of 665,000 by 2015).

The costs are the reasons the rest of the state should be concerned. The city plans to pay for the operating costs using, “the City’s parking fund, farebox revenue, and state and federal transit aid.” The proposal at this time says the fare will only be $1.00 per rider. (By comparison, the fare for the Milwaukee County Bus System is $2.25.) That means $2.94 per rider, or nearly $2 million, will have to come from other sources. The city can’t squeeze much more from the parking checkers which leaves state and federal aid.

Other people’s money.

Your money.

But they have an alternative plan. If the state ever allows Regional Transit Authorities again, supporters of the streetcar system are hoping to suck money out of one of those. Either way, a streetcar system taking in state aid would either mean increased subsidies from outside Milwaukee, or else reduced aid to the bus system which would directly hurt those who actually depend on public transportation (the poor, elderly, minorities and the handicapped).

Much like the characters in Williams’ play. The whole thing is one big, heated, selfish, dysfunctional mess.