What Tom Barrett Could Learn from the Trolley

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

With the return of the summer heat is also the return of the trolley. The city of Milwaukee has a trolley that runs around downtown to various points of interest during the summer for just a dollar round trip. It runs Wednesday through Saturday beginning this Wednesday and stops running September 8th.

A dollar for a round trip? That’s the price of a Snickers Bar. What a deal. The best part of the deal is that the trolley cars are run by a private company and the operating costs are covered by a group of businesses and non-profit sponsors.

What’s even more amazing about this trolley service is that it goes to more places than the “modern” streetcar service proposed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. And if the Downtown Business Improvement District needs to change the route to better accommodate passengers and the destinations the trolley serves, there’s no trouble at all.

Screen shot 2012-05-29 at 8.10.45 PM.pngThanks to a modern invention known as “the tire,” the trolley can go wherever the driver takes it. The private vendor even offers the trolley available for special events.

Despite the presence of a wheeled trolley carrying the masses of Milwaukee to popular destinations, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has a different, more expensive vision. He wants to create a “modern” streetcar that would connect a few points in downtown Milwaukee, not nearly as many as the trolley on tires.

Despite the very limited route, the capital costs for the original limited route is $64.6 million, most of which would come from federal funds. That means you and you and you living outside Milwaukee.

What makes the streetcar “modern?” It would operate on fixed rails, preventing the streetcar from changing its route as needed. Worse, these rails would require the streets to be torn up and the displacement of several utility lines. If the railed-streetcar needed to expand, more streets would have to be torn up and more money would be needed for capital costs. Eventually they could have a railed streetcar system that might take you within 3-4 blocks of your destination at the cost of millions of dollars.

But it’s not just the capital costs for the rails. Somebody has to pay for moving the utility infrastructure underneath the streets when Barrett’s streetcar is built. The cost could exceed $70 million.

Who is going to pay for that? Not us, said WE Energies recently on their blog. “As with other large projects that are not viewed as projects needed for safety, health or public welfare, the majority of the utility relocation costs are paid by the project owner and not We Energies customers. In this case, the project owner would be the city of Milwaukee.”
However, city officials have been quoted in published reports as saying that the utilities would be responsible for the costs.

The utilities, of course, would shift the infrastructure relocation costs to the ratepayers, regardless of whether or not they reside in the city of Milwaukee. This cost shifting could make everyone pay for Barrett’s streetcar.

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As an individual rate payer, Brett Healy of the MacIver Institute has petitioned the Public Service Commission to actually determine if the utility infrastructure relocation is going to be paid for by the utility ratepayers or if its going to be paid for by Milwaukee’s taxpayers before the project begins.

Even if it’s determined that the extra streetcar infrastructure costs are to be borne by the taxpayers, people outside of Milwaukee could still pay for it. Barrett has been a proponent of more of the transportation fund being used for local transportation projects. In addition, Democrats in the legislature were not too happy that the Regional Transit Authorities were knocked down by Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature last session. A change in the control of the governor’s mansion or the state legislature could mean more state or regional funding for Barrett’s streetcar in the future.

Already planners for Milwaukee’s proposed streetcar envision a system that does not just include downtown Milwaukee. Their vision is to see it expand to Miller Park, Mitchell International, Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, and even to UW-Milwaukee and Shorewood.

That’s a lot of rails, roadwork and infrastructure moving for a streetcar that could easily be replaced by a trolley on tires, or for that matter the Milwaukee County Bus System that already services all of those destinations. The only thing missing would be the huge price tag.