Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stop the Koch-funded deceptions. Build the streetcar

With today's headlines showing preliminary approval for the Milwaukee streetcar finally being built, I would encourage you to read Bruce Murphy’s column in Urban Milwaukee on the big-money interests behind the people trying to stop the project from proceeding. Much of the funding and organizaed media campaign can be traced back to Koch front group Americans for Prosperity, as well as the Milwaukee County GOP front group Citizens for Responsible Government. Murphy’s article shows this opposition to be a minimal and weak combination of loudmouth political opportunists (Alders Bob Donovan and Joe Davis) along with anti-city Astroturf organizations. And like most things in Milwaukee’s right-wing world, these people have had to desperately resort to lies, exaggerations, and paid AM radio propagandists (Hi Icki!) to even have a semblance of a movement.

With that in mind, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about the streetcar project. Given that I have had dealings with both the City of Milwaukee and the Federal Transit Administration in my past career, I think I can help explain the different agencies and funding involved, and show you that almost all Wisconsinites will not pay a DIME toward this project, unless they choose to use it themselves when visiting the Brew City.

First of all, the streetcar project will be built using federal money that goes to the City of Milwaukee, and this money from the U.S. DOT’s Federal Transit Administration can only be used for rail-type transit such as a streetcar. Before he became a reporter for Urban Milwaukee, Jeramey Jannene gave a good timeline of this issue for 6 years ago, explaining that the source of funding for this project goes all the way back to 1991. Squabbling over whether to have a bus lane on Milwaukee’s freeways led to some of the money to be taken back, and then some other parts went into Milwaukee-area freeway projects such as the Marquette Interchange, leaving $91.5 million specifically earmarked for start-up costs for an electric-based transit system in downtown Milwaukee.

In the late 2000s, the debate on what to do with the money came to a head with two familiar Milwaukee-area elected officials butting heads, and ultimately having the situation resolved by an act of Congress.
2007-2008 - Tom Barrett and Scott Walker each pushed the issue of the $91.5 [million] much more publicly. Barrett unveiled a plan that included a downtown streetcar loop and two express bus lines, and talked of reconfiguring existing bus service to work with new, express service. Walker unveiled an express bus plan scant on details, but complete with attacks on the Mayor's plan. It appeared he had the intention to simply cut all standard bus service in the areas to be served by express buses. Both, being career politicians, cleverly avoided any mention of the money needed to operate such a system after building it.

September 9th, 2008 - Tom Barrett and Scott Walker debate the merits of their respective proposals at a forum at Marquette moderated by Mike Gousha. Barrett offers to split the $91.5 million 50/50 in person to Walker (an idea he had been proposing for weeks if not months prior), Walker refuses.

March 2009 - Senator Herb Kohl and Representative David Obey include an earmark provision in the bill that became the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 that divided the $91.5 million between the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. Milwaukee County received 40% ($36.6 million), with the City of Milwaukee receiving 60% ($54.9 million). Barrett and Walker are each now free to pursue using their respective allocated funds to build a new mode of transit service in Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee County portion of the funding went toward buying new buses in 2012 and 2013, in an attempt to reduce the backlog of maintenance and fleet needs that had ballooned under Walker. The City of Milwaukee’s $54.9 million has yet to be used, and can only be used for rail-based systems such as light rail or streetcars – it cannot be repurposed to buses or other transit without another act of Congress (much like how the state’s $800 million of high-speed rail money could not be used for other transportation needs, as we all found out in 2010 and 2011).

Which brings us to where we are today. If you look at the actual bill that was procedurally delayed today (and likely to be passed next month), you’ll see that the City already has the money set aside for the non-federal share of the streetcar line.
Further Resolved, That the $44.0 million local share of capital costs for the Phase 1 Starter System and $15.0 million local share of capital costs for the Lakefront Streetcar Line shall be funded as follows:

· $9.7 million - Tax Incremental District No. 49 (Cathedral Place); previously approved through adoption of Common Council File Number 110372.

· $18.3 million - Tax Incremental District No. 56 (Erie/Jefferson Street); subject to Common Council adoption of File Number 141264.

· $31.0 million - Tax Incremental District No. 82 (East Michigan Street); subject to Common Council adoption of File Number 141263.
This simply sets aside funding in a TID with the idea that property values and development will occur on and near the streetcar line, and that the added property values will then help reduce the property tax burden for homeowners and businesses throughout the city. Now you can debate whether funding streetcar development is a good use of a TID (I say yes, others may disagree), but you don’t get to say that funds are being diverted from other needs such as cops or libraries or street repair, because that’s not the truth.

And if you’re concerned about ongoing costs of operating the streetcar, the legislation notes that the City has in its hands $3.18 million dollars from the FTA on a CMAQ air-quality grant that helps defray those costs. This is the same type of CMAQ grant that the Milwaukee County Transit System has used to operate its express buses since 2012, including four new routes that started up this month. The City also plans to use revenue from fare-paying customers, corporate sponsorships, and (if necessary) Parking Fund revenues to pay for the locally-based costs of running the streetcar.

If you look at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s budget request for 2015-17, there are no state operating funds currently being set aside for a Milwaukee streetcar project, nor are any funds being requested, and the City of Milwaukee’s proposed legislation does not count on getting any (the resolution does ask for a “dedicated local funding source for public transit in Milwaukee County” - much like what existed in the former SE Wisconsin RTA). So why should suburbanites care about whether the CITY wants to build its streetcar line in the CITY? In fact, the start of a streetcar line’s operation could open up MCTS for some efficiencies, as the bus system could cut back on some of their downtown buses since the streetcar would be a duplication of service, and instead use their limited resources to give or increase bus services to other parts of the county. You would think that would be a good thing for the ‘burbs, in addition to the positives that would come from having a more vibrant anchor city with new development and an image that the Milwaukee area is moving forward.

Honestly, a lot of the complaints against the streetcar just seem to be based in the Walker-esque “divide and conquer” mentality from a group of anti-city right-wingers. These people don’t like Mayor Tom Barrett, don’t like transit in general, and are more than willing to shill for the Kochs and the Bradleys on AM radio and elsewhere in right-wing bubble world if it gives them a few more dollars and public attention. And they often like to dump on the state’s largest city and economic engine because….it makes their mediocre selves feel superior? And stopping the streetcar would be a “victory” for the righties that would result in.....what?

The useful idiots that are being used by people such as the Kochs and Bradleys to obstruct the streetcar are people who don’t really care about how tax dollars are being used (many of these dimwits don’t seem to even know the sources and limitations of the funds that I’ve laid out above), and they don’t care about improving the quality of life for the City of Milwaukee by making it more attractive for businesses and employees with talent. They just want to stamp their feet like the adolescents they are, and don’t offer any solutions to these issues of transportation and economic development other than a cynical demand to get their way and get more money out of it for themselves. There is no concept of a "big picture" in Milwaukee-area right-wing world.

Which is why these ignoramuses should be laughed out of the public debate, and their wasteful and pointless delay tactics should be ignored and ridiculed. After 6 years of debate and numerous stall tactics by the big-money oligarchs, it is well past time to get the Milwaukee Steetcar built.


  1. Thank you for this straight forward, easy to understand piece Jake.

  2. I thank You as well. Your account should have more exposure for all Wisconsinites as it is just one perfect example of RW and/or 1%er's dynamics occurring daily in our state.

  3. One other benefit to Milwaukee would be tourism.

    The city has a lot of great destinations but they are all spread out.

    I've been to cities like Portland and Denver where it is easy to see the city as a tourist.

    Tourism is not a small factor when it comes to a city's economy.

    1. I'm not as keen on the tourism argument, but given that Milwaukee County attracts more tourism dollars than any other county in the state (and not by a little), you'd have to think some would use it. Especially for events like Summerfest if those people were staying downtown.