July 24, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” Robert Frost famously wrote. “And I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Such are the divergent roads Wisconsin Republicans now look down and, sorry they could not travel both, must decide whether to take the road not taken since 1985 and override a gubernatorial budget veto.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has indicated that the Legislature was strongly considering an override of a line-item veto that would allow Governor Tony Evers to reallocate upwards of $75 million in supplemental local road funding toward such decidedly non-road-related items as bike paths, county bus lines, and even the Milwaukee streetcar.
“If the City of Milwaukee put together a proposal [to obtain funds for the streetcar] out of the pot of money that goes to the cities and villages and it scored well on the economic criteria, [then] it could be awarded, yes,” said Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson.
An aide to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett “implied” to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the city “wouldn’t try to use the money for the streetcar,” but this is likely not true. Simply put, Milwaukee can’t afford the streetcar on its own.
Just one month ago, Milwaukee Department of Public Works streetcar system manager Dave Windsor admitted that the system’s 2020 funding gap was “between $1 million and $1.5 million.” Moreover, he said the city has no way to charge riders for fares once the free rides from Potawatomi Hotel and Casino come to an end because “fare collection equipment hasn’t been ordered” yet.
Does this sound like a city that’s planning to pay for its own streetcar?
Mayor Barrett has spent the past few months desperately and futilely trying to get the Milwaukee Common Council to approve a $52 million expansion of the streetcar route to the Fiserv Forum in time for the arena to host next summer’s Democratic National Convention.
What would be easier—convincing a skeptical and even hostile Common Council (several members of which are running for mayor themselves next year) to approve a massive expenditure of about 3.6% of the annual city budget or a friendly Governor who desperately wants to show off his state in front of the bigwigs in his party?
“The convention represents a tremendous opportunity for Milwaukee and Wisconsin to be on the world stage,” Evers said in a news release after the Democratic National Committee chose Milwaukee. “This is the chance to show the world what Wisconsin truly is: a great place to live, work, and visit.”
What better way to do that than by taking convention attendees in a slightly larger circle on the streetcar?
For that to happen, the expansion needs to break ground yesterday, and both Evers and Barrett clearly understand that a state subsidy is the only possible means. What other non-road project in the state is so pressing that it would necessitate a line-item veto pulling money out of Evers’ prized transportation budget?
“Clearly the people of Wisconsin told us during the campaign to fix the damn roads,” Evers said shortly after introducing his budget, obliquely referencing the “Scott-holes” campaign that helped him defeat former Governor Scott Walker last fall.
What besides a streetcar expansion with a hard and fast-approaching deadline could prompt Evers to abandon his most memorable pledge to voters?
No one, save for Barrett himself, has been clamoring for Evers to expand the damn streetcar line, but it seems that he has eliminated $15 million in valuable road funding so that he can do just that.
The streetcar—perhaps the biggest boondoggle in the state in decades—doesn’t provide a tangible benefit to taxpayers on the north side of Milwaukee let alone the north side of the Wisconsin. Yet if Barrett and Evers have their way, everyone will be paying for it.
“It’s simply ludicrous that the governor would turn his back on Wisconsin drivers everywhere and allow these local road grants to go to projects like the Milwaukee streetcar,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement last week. “We’re seriously considering a veto override.”
They would need help from three Democrats in the Assembly and two in the Senate to get to the two-thirds majority required for such an action, but it is both justified and necessary. A vanity project rushed through for a five-day convention can’t override the long-term needs of millions of Wisconsinites.
Republicans and Democrats alike must recognize this plan for what it is and stop it in its tracks. They must fight for Wisconsin’s roads by taking the road less traveled by and override this ridiculous veto.
That will make all the difference.