Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Streetcar Backers Say They Have the Votes

Aldermen Witkowski and Perez now favor it, and touted plan to extend the line into their south-side districts.

By - Jan 20th, 2015 12:56 pm

The Milwaukee Streetcar starter system has the votes it needs to pass the Milwaukee Common Council, according to project sponsor alderman Robert Bauman. Taking questions following a press conference called by one his colleagues on the Common Council, Bauman said “I think we do have enough votes.” That point was repeatedly reinforced as four alderman, a county supervisor and a state representative took questions on the project a day before the crucial vote.

However, just because the project has the votes to pass doesn’t mean that will happen at tomorrow’s Common Council meeting. Following last month’s one-time parliamentary manuver that held the project in council with only three votes, project opponents have one more arrow in their quiver. Following a floor debate on the merits of the project, a roll call vote will be taken tomorrow. Assuming the project passes (as Bauman predicts), opponents may move for reconsideration of their vote. It only takes three votes to allow reconsideration, which enters the matter on the journal to be reconsidered at the next council meeting (February 10th). In brief, the streetcar is likely to pass the council, but not for another three weeks.

South Side Support

Milwaukee Streetcar Extension Map

Milwaukee Streetcar Extension Map

At a press conference called by far south side alderman Terry Witkowski, the alderman and near south side alderman Jose Perez announced their desire for the first route extension to run south to General Mitchell International Airport. They opened the press conference speaking in front of a large map showing a conceptual alignment. That alignment would have a route running down N. Milwaukee St., E. Pittsburgh Ave., splitting north/south on S. 1st St. and S. 2nd. St, W. National Ave., S. 6th St., W. Lincoln Ave., S. Chase Ave. and S. Howell Ave.

Perez and Witkowski both noted that no engineering work has been done on the extension yet, and that it would only move forward if the downtown starter system is built. Bauman later said the city would pursue federal funding for the extension.

More significant than the route extension was the symbolism of Witkowski and Perez speaking positively about the proposed streetcar project. Witkowski in particular has been considered one of the swing votes to push the measure to success.

Witkowski was effusive in his praise of the proposed streetcar system as part of a broader multi-modal transportation system. “Milwaukee is fine on highways,” he said. “We do need more in the way of moving people with rail.” He noted the streetcar system would be one piece of the broader aerotropolis development around the airport and that “people expect it at the airport.” When constituents have asked how they benefit if they never go downtown, Witkowski says he’s answered that “any development in the city spreads the tax base. Two percent of the city pays thirteen percent of the taxes. You don’t have to be a user of the system to benefit from the system.”

Also appearing, and speaking in support of the project, were State Assembly representative Joshua Zepnick, whose district includes some of the proposed extension, Milwaukee County Supervisor Jason Haas whose district includes the airport and Bay View, and Ald. Nik Kovac, whose district includes the northside of downtown, Riverwest and the East Side.

Alderman Russell Stamper, II was standing behind the cameras and is a likely yes vote for the project. He will hold a public meeting on the project in his district tonight with the mayor. City development commissioner Rocky Marcoux and city engineer Jeff Polenske were also in attendance.

The Referendum

The potential for a referendum still exists, but the petition drive for a referendum faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is the need for 31,000 signatures. Streetcar opponents had originally announced that they would turn the 31,000 signatures in advance of the next vote, which is scheduled for tomorrow. As Bruce Murphy has written, the timing of the referendum makes success unlikely, given that the streetcar project could be approved before the signatures are turned in.

Zielinski’s Gamble

Ald. Tony Zielinski has been a vocal opponent of the Milwaukee Streetcar project. Despite voting for the project in 2011 (after an amendment he introduced was added), Zielinski announced his intent to vote against the project on the Bay View Town Hall Facebook group. That post generated more than 1,000 comments from parties on both sides of the issue.

His opposition to the streetcar might have come back to bite the Bay View alderman. The route extension proposed today goes west of Bay View to get to the airport. In addition, another extension on the map (of which there are many) stops short of Bay View, terminating at E. Greenfield Ave. Future extensions are still mapped to Bay View, and all of the engineering work remains to be done, but it’s an interesting omission.

Of course, it might be not be political payback at all, it could be simply that project supporters Witkowski and Perez want the extension to run through as much of their districts as possible.

Alderman Davis

Ald. Joe Davis. Photo by Michael Horne.

Ald. Joe Davis. Photo by Michael Horne.

Alderman and mayoral candidate Joe Davis drew the ire of alderman Bauman following a question by a member of the press. Davis yesterday released a video and press release claiming that a fixed rail system should run through Century City (the 30th Street Corridor) instead of downtown. Bauman noted that in 2007 the council voted to study just that as part of an extension of the possible Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line, but Davis was not a sponsor of that item. The downtown alderman went on to note that Davis’ proposal would be far more expensive than the streetcar starter proposal, because linking Century City with Downtown by fixed rail would require extension negotiation with many private property owners, including a number of railroads.

“The End of Western Civilization”

For years Mayor Tom Barrett has referenced how in his discussions with leaders of other cities, they’ve told him that streetcar opponents typically portray a city’s first fixed rail project as “the end of western civilization.” He’s noted that the leaders follow that up by saying that as soon as the streetcar gets in the ground, the discussion changes from opposition to getting the system extended. While the streetcar still has plenty of opponents and is at least many months from discussion, today’s press conference suggests the discussion may already be moving in the direction of politicians battling to get the streetcar into their districts.

Streetcar on the Radio

Monday, January 12th, the University Club of Milwaukee hosted a panel on the Milwaukee Streetcar project. Following a presentation by mayor Tom Barrett, Mitch Teich of WUWM moderated a panel that included Rob Henken of the Public Policy Forum, Kevin Muhs of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and yours truly. Teich edited down the lengthy debate into a segment on WUWM’s Lake Effect program. Give it a listen.

Streetcar Maps & Renderings

More about the Milwaukee Streetcar

For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.

Read more about Milwaukee Streetcar here

6 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Backers Say They Have the Votes”

  1. Casey says:

    With the 6th street/Mitchell Airport extension this system finally would become pratical. Extend to UWM and down FLD to Midtown and we’ll really have something.

  2. Hereiam says:

    @Casey did you look at the extension map? Seems like it is headed that way.

    Dave, do you have any idea if they are planning to use a streetcar for the 6+ mile trip to the airport? Might that extension be in the form of light rail? If not, how long would a streetcar trip to the airport take?

  3. max says:

    Being an Alderman Zielinski constituent and supporter of the streetcar, it’s going to be interesting how he navigates these waters since he claims he is all about developing robust retail along KK.

    This very well may come back to bite him. I know I’ll be looking for alternatives the next election cycle.

  4. Bill says:

    Here’s a pretty basic question:

    Who’s going to pay for all these extensions? How will that be funded?

    I mean we seem to lack the funds to repair city streets, so it’s hard to fathom how we will be able to fund all these extensions that will be far more costly than the current route.

    I would tend to agree that the streetcar as proposed needs to be expanded if it’s to have a shot at being successful, but I don’t see where they money is going to come from.

  5. Hereiam says:

    @Bill I’m sure there are people who read this site with a much deeper understanding of how projects like this get funded, but generally it will be funded primarily through TIFs, federal funds, and eventually a dedicated tax.

    TIFs are abused by certain municipalities to fund projects that will not create the needed benefits. Transit lines, on the other hand, are basically the ideal projects for TIF funding. A transit line adds a strong incentive for development along a very specific area. Therefore, its relatively easy to identify your TIF district and the funding it can support. The city won’t rely on a single source, but economically you could probably fund the build out of a massive system with TIFs alone.

    The federal government, while facing tons of other issues, is looking at trillions of dollars in needed infrastructure investments. There is going to be a stream of funds from the federal government for infrastructure projects that will last at least a generation. While the DOT probably won’t give Milwaukee more money until shovels are in the ground, but once the starter is in place we will be an ideal candidate for federal funds to be used for expansion.

    While regional transit authorities seem to have been caught up in some weird Wisconsin-only political pissing match, that structure is the only sensible way to manage and operate a mass transit system. Think of the MTA, MTBA, CTA, etc. Once an RTA is in place it will need a dedicated funding source (i.e. a portion of either the property tax or sales tax levy).

  6. David says:

    Ald. Zelinski could care less about Bayview. He’s planning on running fro Rep. Moore’s seat and wants his opposition to the streetcar to win political points within her district. He’s just an opportunist.

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