Streetcar Opposition Mounts

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
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.