Jeramey Jannene

Republicans Move to Kill Milwaukee Streetcar

If the streetcar is killed and federal money for it is lost, it will mean the total amount of federal transit money for Wisconsin rejected by Scott Walker will exceed $1 billion.

By - May 9th, 2013 12:27 pm
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In a move that should have seemed an obvious possibility from the moment Republicans took control of state government, the state budget is being used as the vehicle to stop the Milwaukee Streetcar project. Ignoring an on-going, established process to litigate utility relocation costs, Republicans on the budget-controlling Joint Committee on Finance have passed a budget amendment put forth by Rep. Dale Kooyenga that would require the City of Milwaukee to pay all utility relocation costs as part of the Milwaukee Streetcar project. Despite the fact that the utility costs would have been nowhere near the bandied about $70 million figure, the budget amendment will virtually eliminate the city’s ability to build the project by ceding power to the utilities.

It’s apparent that the Republican legislators have no desire to see the Public Service Commission rule on the case before them regarding who pays for the utility relocation costs. Despite the Commission being made up of two-thirds Governor Scott Walker appointees, it appeared to be set to rule at least partially in favor of the Milwaukee Streetcar project at the last meeting in September.

The challenge before the Public Service Commission came from conservative think tank leader Brett Healy of Oconomowoc (filed as a private citizen). Healy’s claim centered on the notion that, as a ratepayer, if the utilities had to paid to relocate their lines for the project he and other We Energies customers would be picking up the tab. While that may be true, it’s also true that Milwaukee customers pay when Oconomowoc rebuilds a street. Equipment relocation is just a fact of life for utilities, but they also get to put their lines and equipment rent free in the streets.

A rendering of the streetcar coming up Broadway out of the Historic Third Ward.

Every public infrastructure project goes through negotiation with utilities, with negotiations reducing the cost-burden to utilities to be as small as possible. The $800+ million Marquette Interchange (built literally above a power plant) had an initial quote of $120 million for utility relocation, but through planning and negotiation the cost ended up at $23 million.

If the cost for utilities was the issue, these companies would be leading the charge on this issue, rather than Healy and other opponents of streetcars and “choo choo trains,” as detractors like Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling like to call such transit options. Why Republicans, who claim to be focused on job creation, want to stop an economic development and transportation project in the largest job center in the state comes down to three simple things. Who is proposing it, where it’s happening, and what it rides on. If a Democrat proposes anything in Milwaukee that rides on steel wheels Republicans are against it.

Wisconsin Republican’s Anti-Rail History

Light rail from downtown Milwaukee to Waukesha? Republicans at the state killed it.

Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail? Republicans at the state killed it.

Extending the Amtrak Hiawatha Service to Madison at 110 mph (with stops in Brookfield and Watertown)? Republicans at the state killed it.

Building a maintenance base for trainsets the state had already purchased from Talgo? Republicans at the state killed it.

Rebuilding the train shed at Milwaukee Intermodal Station? Republicans rejected federal funds to fix the non-ADA compliant shed and are now left with a situation that will cost Wisconsinites millions.

A streetcar starter system in downtown Milwaukee? Republicans killed it.

The common link? All the projects were proposed by Democrats, had a presence in the City of Milwaukee, and involved steel wheels on steel rails.

Since becoming Governor in 2010, Scott Walker will have effectively rejected over $1 billion in federal money for rail transportation projects. The loss of high-speed rail funds to connect Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee represent $823 million. The KRM funds would have been at least $140 million. Assuming Walker (who has made clear his opposition to the Milwaukee streetcar) ultimately supports the amendment proposed by the Joint Finance Committee, he will also be rejecting $54.9 million for the Milwaukee Streetcar, which is the last of a $289 million 1991 federal grant.

Conservative Cities and States Plow Ahead

Wisconsin’s anti-rail Republicans are an increasingly unusual group compared to many of their peers. Salt Lake City, Utah continues to plow ahead with expansion of their light rail and commuter rail system (started when Mitt Romney was their running the Olympics). Charlotte, North Carolina continues to expanding their extremely successful light rail system. Dallas is building a streetcar system, expanding their light rail system, and looking to add a commuter rail system. Atlanta, Georgia is building a streetcar system, despite unresolved utility issues. Cincinnati, Ohio is building a streetcar system. Tuscon, Arizona is building a streetcar system. Phoenix, Arizona opened a large light rail system. Kansas City, Missouri is moving forward with a streetcar system. See the complete list of projects at Reconnecting America.

Density and Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s position as the densest American region without fixed rail transit seems safe and secure. By the Census Bureau’s preferred measure of density (population-weighted density), the Milwaukee region is the 15th densest in the country at 5,257 residents per square-mile. Within two miles of Milwaukee City Hall there is an average density of 14,615 residents per square-mile. Portland, a city with a streetcar system the one in Milwaukee is planned after, has a regional population-weighted density of 4,372 per sq/mile, and a density of 8,023 per sq/mile within two miles of City Hall. Despite what transit opponents say, Milwaukee is a very dense city. If rail transit requires density to work and rail transit works well in Portland, rail transit should be a huge success in Milwaukee.

Population data from the United States Census Bureau.

The Future

Yes, the City of Milwaukee could still move forward with the project, but utilities hold all the cards in terms of what needs to be replaced and what doesn’t. We Energies CEO Gale Klappa will deserve every dollar of his paycheck if he’s able to make the City of Milwaukee replace his company’s aging equipment with new equipment.

Many of the previously mentioned cities are certain to be looking to get their hands on Milwaukee’s federal transportation money. Much like other states were thankful to receive Wisconsin’s high-speed rail stimulus funds, some city is likely to be thankful to get the second leg of their streetcar starter system underway with money originally designated for Wisconsin.

Milwaukee County Transit Cuts Loom

The effective cancellation of the Milwaukee Streetcar project isn’t the only bad news for transit in Wisconsin. After staving off a 10% cut in state aid during the last state budget cycle with one-time federal funds, the Milwaukee County Transit System is poised for a massive service cut in 2014. The Joint Finance Committee has not signaled an intent to restore the previous 10% cut, meaning MCTS and other systems across the state will continue to scramble to find ways to sustain service. The Milwaukee region continues to be the densest region in the country without a dedicated funding source for mass transit.

101 thoughts on “Republicans Move to Kill Milwaukee Streetcar”

  1. Tom D says:

    I came across another video answering questions like “Why streetcars instead of buses?” and “Do streetcars really attract development differently than buses?”

    This video is about 1 hour long and was made last month in Cincinnati (which is also planning a streetcar). There are 3 speakers. Unfortunately, the first speaker is the least interesting. The second (who was the Portland Streetcar’s project manager during its construction) and the third (a woman who is today’s chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission) really made the case for streetcars far better than I can.

    Let me explain the significance of Toronto in this discussion. Toronto has a bigger transit system than any city in the US (except NYC). Toronto also has more streetcars than all US cities COMBINED. Its busiest single streetcar route carries about 70,000 people/day–about 50% more people than the Hoan bridge. And since Toronto’s winters are at least as bad as Milwaukee’s, Toronto shows that streetcars run fine in winter.

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