Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Milwaukee streetcar OK reverses lengthy suburban, GOP blockade

The Milwaukee Common Council voted 9-6 today to approve a starter urban rail system.

Barring last-minute legal or political maneuvering, the vote could finally end almost two decades of costly and divisive anti-urban politicking by suburban-focused conservative talk radio agitators and Republican state legislators and Waukesha County politicians who blocked city rail investments and the development opportunities which rail will trigger while continually backing more expensive highway expansions that served commuters and removed Milwaukee properties.

I defer today to local writer Jeramey Jannene's authoritative account of the project and Council posted at the Urban Milwaukee website.

I also want to reproduce for context and the record the text of an op-ed I wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2008 about the partisan, suburban and state governmental politicking that blocked consideration of a starter light rail system in, for and through the city. I was policy director and/or chief of staff in the office of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a light-rail proponent, when much of the battle over light rail took place.

The railroad not taken 

Had talk radio and suburban opposition not sunk a 1997 plan, we’d be riding sleek transit by now

The Associated Press recently reported that spiking gas prices have brought double-digit ridership increases this year on light rail trains in Baltimore, Minneapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis.
Even small cities such as Norfolk, Va., are building light rail lines with their signature short, sleek electric trains, while other cities are showing solid ridership gains on longer-distance commuter rail lines using bigger trains.
Though a Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line remains under study, Milwaukee is still among the few major American cities without light rail or commuter rail.
A starter light rail system was recommended for Milwaukee County in a major state-funded regional transportation study in the 1990s that had considerable public and private sector support.
But conservative AM talk radio and opposition in Waukesha County blocked further study of light rail for Milwaukee, even though $241 million in federal funds was set aside specifically for transit improvements in Milwaukee County.
Had plans unfolded on schedule, the starter light rail, with an estimated 21,000 riders on weekdays, would have opened in 2006 and run about 10 miles from the Third Ward to Summerfest, downtown, Miller Park, the Milwaukee County Zoo and the County Grounds.
Talk about a missed opportunity. It would have provided Milwaukeeans with a spiffy transit option in the face of $4-a-gallon gasoline, with higher eventual prices predicted.
The system would have benefited from the city's condo-and-loft boom, a resurgent Milwaukee Brewers' ballclub, the successful Potawatomi Bingo Casino and an expanding Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.
Extensions to Milwaukee's north side and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee would have generated support, and light rail could have assisted Waukesha County commuters because years of Zoo Interchange and I-94 reconstruction are planned west of Milwaukee.

The plan

But back to 1997: That's when five years of research and hearings managed by the state Department of Transportation and a consultant finally produced a draft plan with three key elements:
• Highways: Marquette Interchange and east-west corridor reconstruction with special carpool and bus lanes from downtown Milwaukee to Highway J in Waukesha County: $1.32 billion. 
• Light rail: The starter line in Milwaukee County: $330 million.
• Buses: Greatly expanded bus service connecting Waukesha and Milwaukee counties: $90 million.
In late January 1997, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson and aides showed the two-county transportation plan to local officials and asked them to support the package even if they disliked one or another element. As policy director to then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, I attended the meeting at which Thompson made his pitch. Though opposed to special lanes, Norquist agreed not to attack the plan.
Light rail already was controversial: The late business leader George Watts said publicly in late 1996 that light rail could deliver "strangers" into unsuspecting communities and threaten their property and children - a remark some felt was racist. And "light rail" was and continues to be aimed as a partisan, fear-laden phrase against Milwaukee and its urban, Democratic majority on conservative talk radio and in some Republican-dominated suburbs.
Sensing a backlash in Thompson's base, an administration spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a Feb. 1, 1997 article - just days after Thompson's presentation to Norquist - that not "a nickel" of state money would be spent on light rail in Milwaukee. Nevertheless, the $1.76 billion plan, including the light rail element at an estimated 20% of the package's cost, was presented to the Waukesha County and Milwaukee County boards for their mutual consideration.
Both boards, practicing enlightened regional cooperation, passed their resolutions in April 1997 to accept and acknowledge the plan but not to formally approve it.
The resolutions' intents were to trigger up to two more years of studies, preliminary engineering and detailed planning - and, no doubt, disputes and compromises - for eventual implementation.
But Daniel Finley, a Republican then-Waukesha County executive, vetoed his board's resolution over the light rail element, even though the proposed line didn't extend into Waukesha County.
The Waukesha County Board approved a substitute resolution in May 1997 that supported the plan's highway and bus elements but specifically said light rail should not be located in or financed by Waukesha County.
As the light rail option in Milwaukee was being crippled, the national average price of regular unleaded gasoline in May 1997 was $1.21 a gallon, the authoritative Lundberg Study showed.
Four months later, as part the state budget process, the Thompson administration pledged, in writing, that no state or federal funds would be used to build or study Milwaukee light rail.
Then-Rep. Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield) declared "light rail is dead," and the highways/rail/bus package was not implemented. 
(For this op-ed, efforts to reach Thompson by e-mail were unsuccessful. Finley, now president of the Milwaukee Public Museum, declined to comment.)

Where to go from here

In subsequent years, more than 60% of the federal $241 million was spent on Milwaukee transportation projects after Thompson and Norquist agreed to divide the money into equal $120.5 million shares and prevent its reallocation by Congress.
The state controlled one share, and the Milwaukee city and county governments jointly controlled the other. With varying contributions from the shares, the Park East Freeway spur was torn down, and a new Sixth Street Bridge was built. Both projects provided new street connections and land for development.
The special carpool lanes weren't built, and a large piece of the state's $120.5 million went to rebuild the Marquette Interchange. The interchange reconstruction was the first phase of a seven-county, $6.3 billion regional freeway reconstruction plan that will add 127 miles of new lanes.
There is still an intact $91.5 million from the original federal transportation funding in the share controlled by Milwaukee's city and county governments. The money could go to the KRM commuter line; an effort to invest it in a downtown electric guided bus system fell through a few years ago, and politics continues to keep the funds frozen.
A Milwaukee County pension scandal forced the 2002 removal of County Executive F. Thomas Ament, a light rail supporter. 
County Executive Scott Walker, a former Republican state legislator from Wauwatosa and an outspoken opponent of light rail, remains the post-Ament incumbent. An ally of conservative talk radio and opponent of urban rail alternatives, Walker is battling with Tom Barrett, a Democrat and Milwaukee's mayor since 2004, over how to spend that $91.5 million.
Walker wants the money for express bus service. Barrett has proposed splitting the money between express buses and downtown streetcars.
Though Waukesha County and Walker keep light rail shelved, and Ament's demise helped derail it, it's technically not dead: It survives as a potential transit alternative that could link Waukesha to downtown Milwaukee, according to a key document: the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.
Citizens concerned about dirty air, failing transit and excessive regional highway spending should demand that officials activate that light rail alternative and get busy with an updated, comprehensive and balanced transportation study.
People should organize against opinion-makers and elected officials who limit choices, job opportunities and our region's development by crying "light rail, light rail!" It's time to end the train blockade in our state's largest city.

James Rowen is a local writer and consultant who blogs at thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com

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