Update Feb. 10: The Milwaukee Common Council approved the streetcar connecting downtown to the lower east side the morning of Feb. 10.
Streetcars and light rail systems are central to America’s growing re-urbanization — the counterpunch to last century’s urban flight. Although critics often dismiss them as “trendy,” you’ll find such systems today in down-to-earth cities such as Oklahoma City, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Leaders in conservative metro areas such as Salt Lake City rave about them. They’re an integral part of 21st–century urban landscapes in nearly every corner of the nation — Portland and Seattle, Tucson and Phoenix, Atlanta and Nashville, Philadelphia and Boston.
Many of the cities that have added streetcars or light rail to their public transportation options over the past couple of decades consider them great successes. Portland, Oregon, which pioneered the streetcar’s return, reports that $3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of its streetcar lines, resulting in 10,212 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction.
Not every city can report the spectacular results of Portland’s streetcar, and some systems do have flaws that are touted by naysayers intent on finding them. But it’s accurate to say that the scores of streetcar projects that have been built over the past two decades have proven overwhelmingly popular. They’ve benefited their local economies and provided an additional mode of transportation that gets large numbers of people out of their cars and into their streets, where they can get around without dealing with parking hassles.
Milwaukee is the most densely populated city in the nation without any rail component in its pubic transportation mix —yet.
The taste of Koch
Approval for Milwaukee’s streetcar initially seemed like a slam-dunk. The city’s major business interests are so firmly behind it that several of them took out a full-page ad supporting the project in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The ad, headlined as an “open letter to the City of Milwaukee,” read: “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to propel Milwaukee forward in a bold new direction that will positively impact the future of our great city for decades. If we don’t reinvest in our community, fewer people will locate here, existing citizens will leave, and it will leave a deep hole in the pool of resources available to take care of people.”
The highest-profile business leaders in Milwaukee, including Michael Cudahy, Greg Marcus, Barry Mandel, David Lubar, Jeffrey Jorres, Alex Molinaroli, Gary Grunau, Linda Gorens-Levey and Greg Wesley, signed the letter.
The Milwaukee Business Journal reported that Johnson Controls Inc. is taking a “keen interest” in the Milwaukee streetcar as it considers places for possible expansion. Development giant Jon Hammes said the streetcar could spur construction of an $80-million building he’s proposed for downtown.
But there’s a name that’s missing from that list, and it’s not because he’s reluctant to get involved in the state’s local issues: David Koch. His groups got involved in two school board elections last April in Kenosha, turning them into to pro-voucher boards. They also tried to derail an expansion of that city’s streetcar expansion, Christopher Naumann, executive director of Downtown Kenosha, told WiG.
As in Milwaukee, there were few objections to Kenosha’s streetcar up until the weeks before the vote, despite the fact that it had been a priority for city planners since 2012. Unlike in Milwaukee, Kenosha’s aldermen stood up to the special interests and refused to play politics with their streetcar. They voted to move forward.
Kenosha’s streetcar development will cost $10 million — $8 million of which is coming from a federal grant.
“The momentum this thing took in the last weeks and the personalities that got involved were very interesting,” Naumann said. “Things seemed to be more about politics than about the streetcar.”
“The streetcar isn’t nearly as impactful as other issues, but they were going after this as low-hanging fruit,” he added.
In the scale of things, a $2-million expenditure on building a streetcar line in a small Wisconsin city seems small potatoes for the mighty Kochs. But it’s an issue for which Koch and his fossil-fuel cronies have a distinct distaste. Any advancement of transportation that replaces driving is bad for their business.
In fact, the involvement of Koch interests in fighting streetcars seems to counter opponents’ claims that they’re underutilized. If the tea party and its fossil-fuel backers really thought no one would use the streetcars, then why would they waste so much effort trying to prevent them from being constructed?
Nevertheless, two 2016 challengers to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s re-election have joined forces with Koch brothers allies to turn the streetcar project into the hot-button political issue du jour. After several delays on voting for the project, the Milwaukee Common Council approved it on Jan. 21. But in a convoluted parliamentary move, aldermen also voted to delay its final approval until Feb. 10.
The delay is designed to give Ald. Bob Donovan and Ald. Joe Davis, both of whom want to unseat Barrett in 2016, a chance to collect 31,000 signatures to compel a binding referendum that would mandate voter approval for any rail spending over $20 million. A similar attempt to halt a streetcar in Kansas City failed.
But Citizens for Responsible Government, the ad hoc group led by Donovan that’s spearheading the referendum effort, has said it will not provide the needed signatures until Feb. 9. Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski said that he’s entitled to — and needs — up to 15 days to review the petitions for accuracy.
So, even though the Common Council has approved the streetcar, it’s unclear what its members will do on Feb. 10. The fate of the streetcar remains up in the air, and the project could ultimately wind up on a court docket.
One possibility is that the referendum would apply to future rail decisions but not this one, Owczarski said.
“You can’t use direct legislation to undo something that’s already been done,” he explained.
Meanwhile Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-brothers-advocacy group, is reportedly trying to steer the city away from the project. Their efforts are benefiting from the support of right-wing radio hosts such as Charlie Sykes, who’s provided a soap box for Donovan (who has formerly run for political office as a Republican).
Why are the Koch brothers and their interests so terrified of a 2.1-mile streetcar system that they would resort to denigrating the program as catering to the rich and would feign concern over public funding for the poor?
The rhetoric against Milwaukee’s modest streetcar starter plan has been all but apocalyptic. The plan, which would connect downtown Milwaukee to the lower East Side and the lakefront, has been blasted as everything from a racist plot to a rape magnet to a careless waste of taxpayer dollars. (The longterm plan for the streetcar would extend it up the east side of the city and west of the Milwaukee River.)
The introductory price for a ticket would be $1.
Steve Hiniker, president of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist are infuriated that right-wing leaders have positioned the streetcar as “waste of taxpayer dollars,” while ignoring the $1-billion plan to expand I-94 through downtown Milwaukee. Traffic studies have proven the expansion is not needed, and it would be financed partially through Wisconsinites’ property taxes and federal money that Republican leaders usually make a great show of turning down. It will cause countless accidents, delays and loss of productivity but will offer no necessary benefits at a time when traffic on the corridor is declining.
The difference between the I-94 expansion and the streetcar is that road builders give millions of dollars to elected officials, but the streetcar does not offer them a comparable payday, according to Hiniker and others.
It’s telling that Donovan wasn’t even aware of the I-94 expansion project when WiG spoke with him recently by phone.
“I haven’t looked at that issue, quite frankly,” said Donovan, who announced his mayoral candidacy for 2016 on Sykes’ radio program.
On the other hand, Donovan and Davis have looked very, very hard at the $124-million Milwaukee streetcar line. They’ve bashed the project with distortions and outright lies.
Donovan’s complaints about the project are among the quirkiest. He said they represent “old-fashioned technology that’s going to take Milwaukee backwards.”
“It’s going to put ugly wires out in the streets,” lamented the alderman.
But the prize for most bizarre objection goes to Ald. Joe Dudzik, who called in to a live radio program to warn listeners that the streetcar would be a magnet for shootings, assaults and rape.
The geography and sociology of the United States during the second half of the 19th century were transformed by the construction of vast interstate highway system made possible by cheap oil and environmental blindness — and racism. From coast to coast and border to border, nature was resurfaced with thousands of miles of tar offering safe passage to white urbanites fleeing black and Latino newcomers.
The white-flight generation littered the nation with ugly, chain-store-studded strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments that crowded out the plant and animal life that occupied the continent for eons. The one-two punch of chopping down the nation’s trees and filling the air with automobile exhaust helped change the global climate.
But in time, everything old becomes new again. Unpredictable gas prices, the lost productivity resulting from ever-longer drive times to ever-farther suburbs, falling real estate prices and the sociocultural sterility of the suburbs have grown tiresome to growing numbers of their residents.
Farsighted developers revitalized cities like Milwaukee, and empty nesters began opting to live in the vibrant new urban pockets they created, such as the Third Ward, which offers close proximity to entertainment, culture, chic boutiques and gourmet dining.
Their kids, meanwhile, began gravitating to their own urban neighborhoods such as Bay View and Walker’s Point, places that offer low-cost housing, diverse social interaction and freedom from wasting so much of their lives in automobiles, inhaling toxic fumes and contributing to the planet’s demise.
“People want to be close together for social and culture and business interactions,” Norquist told WiG by phone. “The city is a cultural creative soup that creates value. Even the great conservative think tanks are in cities. Being in the middle is important. The urban environment and transit brings people together.”
Norquist, who said the streetcar is a no-brainer for Milwaukee, has witnessed up-close and personal the decades-long struggle to bring rail back to Milwaukee. He notes that automotive interests eliminated the city’s streetcars in the first place.
According to Norquist, business interests connected with Firestone and General Motors owned Milwaukee streetcar systems for a while before eliminating them and the competition they represented.
“A lot of the people who participated in this were progressive,” Norquist said. “They thought streetcars were old-fashioned.”
Norquist said the final owner of a rail system that offered direct service from downtown Milwaukee to the Chicago Loop every hour not only ended the service but “burned down all the trains and equipment because they didn’t want the cars to go anywhere else.”
The federal grant that would cover nearly half of the proposed Milwaukee streetcar project has a long and checkered history, Norquist said.
Back in the 1970s, the federal government appropriated $500 million for transportation in Milwaukee, Norquist said. The money was frittered away by a succession of governors until there was only $125 million left, part of which was used to tear down the Park East Freeway, he said.
“By the time I left there was $95 million left,” Norquist added. That amount is now down to $54 million.
No one seems to know what will happen to the money if it’s not used for the streetcar. Like the millions that Republicans turned down to build a high-speed rail corridor and expand Medicaid in Wisconsin, it might just go to another city and state with leaders who are more interested in their citizens than their political careers.