Monday, February 26, 2007

The Overlooked Ironies in the Milwaukee Transit Debate

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Larry Sandler recently summarized the maddening failure of the region to agree on how to spend its remaining $91.5 million in federal transit investment dollars.

But let's not forget these salient, irony-laden factors:

* Gov. Tommy Thompson brokered a deal among Milwaukee and Waukesha city and county leaders to expand the I-94 freeway system from the city to the west and build a light rail system in the same corridor. City officials liked the light rail component because it would add modern transit, especially in the downtown.

* Though the original pot of federal money was to be spent in Milwaukee County only, then-Mayor John Norquist had agreed (and let the outcome be a lesson to those who think regional cooperation agreements alway lead to cooperation and consensus!) to a request from Thompson to spend the transit funds in consultation with Waukesha.

* That two-county plan collapsed when then-Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley vetoed the Waukesha County Board's approval. Consultation with Waukesha had led to a Waukesha veto (see regionalism admonition, above).

* One of the earliest and most effective organizers on behalf of light rail had been Rob Henken, a congressional staffer who moved here to manage a project called Alliance for Future Transit, AFT.

* Where is Finley now? Still a Waukesha County resident, Finley is running the fiscally-challenged Milwaukee County Public Museum - - which sure could use the riders and the downtown buzz that light rail could deliver to the museum.

* And where is Henken? He's the new Secretary of the Department of Administration in the Scott Walker administration.

Based on the his deserved reputation for organizing excellence he'd gained community-wide, Henken had gone to work for the County Board after the collapse of AFT.

Then Henken went over to Walker's administration after former Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament got himself recalled over the county's pension mess, rising through the administration eventually to the County's DOA secretary post.

* While Ament had been a transit-booster, Walker has busied himself since taking office by trimming the Milwaukee County Transit System, and has gotten even busier the last few weeks trying to stop Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett from investing the remaining $91.5 million in a modest downtown trolley - - not light rail - - and two cross-city express bus lines. (Again see regional cooperation discussion above)

So where are we headed?

The Barrett plan will probably move to the next level of study, though Walker will play the role of Finley during the Norquist years to block it. (Inter-governmental cooperation, anyone?)

Irony of ironies: Unlike then-Waukesha County Exec. Finley, Walker is the executive of Milwaukee County, and while every major facility that Walker supervises or influences - - the airport, the parks, the museum and others need a better transit system to keep them viable - - Walker wants to bar modern transit from Milwaukee County.

Conclusion: Walker would rather have failed institutions and an outmoded transit system, rather than a transit success with all its spinoffs, because a successful, County-run transit network would give the lie to Walker's reactionary bumper-sticker belief that government cannot be part of the solution.


citydem said...

The real overlooked irony is Walker's love for wasteful government spending.He enthusiastically supports the unfunded SEWRPC road building binge ,lavished fat pension benefits on his close advisers like math challenged Budget Director Steve Agostini and,supported,enthusiastically, the Mother of all wasteful spending programs- the War in Iraq.
Another overlooked irony is that Milwaukee County's Transit budget comes closer to breaking even than almost any County activity if you count state support as revenue. The cuts have done next to nothing to help the County's budget balance and are rather obviously intended to burnish Scott Walkasha's anti City image for his next foray into the angry world of GOP politics.

James Rowen said...

To citydem:
Walker is waiting for Sensenbrenner to leave and then our exec. is off to Washington.