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Milwaukee alderman wants voters to decide streetcar fate

By   /   April 23, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Take it to the people.

That’s what Milwaukee 8th District Alderman Bob Donovan is demanding of the city’s $64 million-plus downtown streetcar question.

Donovan, no fan of the proposal that aims to run a streetcar line between the city’s lower east side and the downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station, in a letter asks Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to push for taking the question of financing the streetcar to Milwaukee voters.

In the letter, sent last week, Donovan said he believes 70 percent of Milwaukee voters do not support the streetcar idea, daring Barrett to prove him wrong.

“(P)rove to me that a majority of city residents favor the streetcar project. Let’s have a vote — a referendum on this issue — and then we will have our answer once and for all,” Donovan writes. “I believe such a massive public project that will affect generations of city residents for decades to come deserves a vote.”

Donovan acknowledges that he has no scientific polling backing his assertion that 70 percent of voters oppose the streetcar line. His anecdotal data is based on emails, phone calls and contacts with residents.

“I’m guessing at that figure, but I feel very confident about it,” he told Wisconsin Reporter. “But I’m begging you Tom Barrett, prove me wrong.”

Donovan said he had yet to hear from the mayor, as of late Monday afternoon.

Asked about Donovan’s letter, Barrett’s office sent Wisconsin Reporter the same statement it sent to other media late last week.

“As Mayor Barrett stated last Tuesday, he is humbled and gratified he was re-elected by the voters of Milwaukee for a third term with 71 percent of the vote,” the statement reads

Funding questions

The streetcar proposal has come under fire, particularly from conservatives who see it as a potential boondoggle, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars without appropriate return on investment.

Barrett and supporters argue the vast majority of the project — about $54.9 million worth — would be paid for using long-idle federal transit dollars. And the streetcar, beyond increasing public transportation, could spur more than 20,000 jobs and add $3.35 billion to the city’s tax base, according to Milwaukee Connector, a study of transit options conducted for Milwaukee.

City officials have said the $64.6 million price tag would be covered through the federal funding, and $9.7 million in tax incremental financing. Fares, parking fees and sponsorship would fund the projected $2.65 million annual operating costs.

What has yet to be decided, however, is who picks up the tab for move utility lines to make room for the preferred streetcar route. The total cost, utilities have said, could run north of $55 million. City officials have said they are working with utilities to reduce the expense.

The Public Service Commission is to decide on whether multiple public utilities, and thereby their customers, or the city — taxpayers — will have to pay to relocate lines. Power provider We Energies has estimated its costs — the largest share — at around $45 million.

We Energies did not return a Wisconsin Reporter phone call seeking comment.

Oconomowoc resident Brett Healy asked the PSC to decide the matter. Healy, president of the Wisconsin-based John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, said he filed his PSC request concerned that ratepayers would have to absorb additional costs to utilities.

Healy filed as a private citizen, but MacIver has been critical of the streetcar project.

Streetcar politics

Donovan said he thinks the streetcar matter should be an issue in the gubernatorial recall campaign. Barrett is among four Democrats hoping to face off against Gov. Scott Walker in a June 5 recall election.

In his letter, Donovan asks Barrett whether the mayor would push for state money to subsidize the streetcar’s annual operating costs.

“If your answer is ‘no,’ then I strongly suggest that you put the entire project on hold, as the new mayor of Milwaukee may be opposed to the streetcar project (and especially to its ongoing hefty operational costs!),” Donovan demands of Barrett.

Donovan contends that state taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize Milwaukee’s streetcar line, either.

Barrett’s office responded to the state funding question and others with the one written statement the mayor has made on the issue.

While calling a referendum is in the hands of the Milwaukee City Council, Donovan said Barrett could apply appropriate pressure in getting a measure passed.

The alderman failed in a previous effort last year, mustering little support from his fellow council members to delay movement on the streetcar project and for a ballot question.

Donovan said the city is not in a fiscal position to take on a streetcar line, particularly when faced with evidence of other urban areas that have struggled to make their lines self-sufficient. Seattle’s streetcars, for instance, in 2010 were subsidized to the tune of $1.7 million, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Donovan said he’s asking for a referendum because taxpayers should decide Milwaukee’s streetcar issue.

“I think it’s appropriate that the people ultimately paying for this have a voice,” the alderman said.