Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Milwaukee Trolley Plan Gets Study OK: Walker's "No" Inconsequential

With a lot less noise than its controversial launch a few weeks earlier, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's downtown trolley and cross-town express bus proposal was approved by a study committee for a review that could run until the end of the year.

The positive vote by the study committee was something of a foregone conclusion, since Barrett has one representative on the committee, and members from two other institutions - - the Metropolitan Metropolitan Association of Commerce and the Wisconsin Center District - - backed earlier and even more expensive mass transit upgrades, so their "aye" votes were not really surprising.

The lone "no" vote was cast by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's representative - - another predictable move: Walker has backed himself into a corner with repetitive objections to anything running on a track in his county as "light rail," thus continuing his robotic marriage to archaic buses only.

Not to mention his belief that someday, Milwaukee County would be magically transformed into a municipal car-o-topia, where those he called transit dependent could afford to buy cars, insure and maintain them, and pour expensive gasoline into their tanks for the long ride to new jobs in faraway Waukesha County.

Of course, the Barrett plan has those two enticing new express routes connecting the west side, UW-M, and two county operations - - the airport and the County grounds in Wauwatosa - - but Walker still doesn't want the entire commuter/student/downtown shopper/tourist transit plan studied.

Good thing Walker has but one vote on the committee: The notion that it is better to study something new and innovative than stamp your foot and shake your head and pass that off as a transportation strategy with the local transit rider in mind carried by three votes to one.

With a projected completion date just months before the April, 2008 local elections, including those for Mayor and County Executive, the study committee's outcome, and its probable move into the next, "preliminary engineering" phase could make transit the defining issue in these races.

And it's about time - - politically and financially.

There is $91.5 million in federal funds dedicated to transit improvements available for a system upgrade like the one Barrett has proposed (federal money cannot be spent on bus replacements, as Walker has proposed) - - enough money to get a new system started.

State and regional support, with pre-paid passes accompanying conferees' registration fees at Midwest Convention Center conferences adding to fare box revenues (pre-paid passes and other transit tie-ins are a staple at other convention-and-tourism linked transit systems), could also help get the system into the ground and boost already sagging bus ridership numbers.

What's been lacking is a fiscally-manageable plan and enough political will to take bold steps.

Maybe the elections for the top posts in city and county government will drive Milwaukee out of its stodgy transit past and down a completely new and modern track


Anonymous said...

The issue of light rail in Milwaukee County will never die a peaceful death. High-efficiency buses(archaic as you say) will serve far more people than any outmoded rail system can.

James Rowen said...

Actually, rail would help drive people to the bus, or people would use the bus to get to the rail.

If light rail is outmoded, why are so many cities adding it?