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A Small Step In The Right Direction

March 16, 2009
Streetcar in Seattle (photo by WintrHawk)

Streetcar in Seattle (photo by WintrHawk)

On Friday, it was announced that the stalemate between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett on the allocation of $91.5 million in federal transit funds was broken.   The City of Milwaukee will get $54.9 million and Milwaukee County will receive the remaining $36.6 million to fund a downtown streetcar and some form of bus rapid transit, respectively.

This news is extremely good, and I’m very happy to be proven wrong about intra-city rail in Milwaukee, even if the scope of this project is small.   But now that we’ve passed this important hurdle,  a major effort toward educating the area about the benefits of such a system is desperately needed.   It goes without saying that not everyone is in agreement with such a plan — many of them have absolutely no stake in this plan since they do not live in Milwaukee County nor frequent the downtown area — but with sufficient education about the benefits of alternative modes of transit, a lot of our critics may come around.  In the interest of cultivating an actual — er, in this case, a fake discussion about transit — let’s look at a few areas where critics are wrong about the streetcar:

This money could be better spent fixing our roads!

Actually, no, it can’t be.  This money was designated by the federal government for transit purposes only; and in that respect, it was not to be used on the existing transit system, but for the creation of an additional transit mode (trains, BRT, trolley, streetcar, etc.)     Fixing our roads is also important, but there’s no way this money was ever going to be used for this purpose.

Great, now we’re going to have an empty streetcar trailing an empty bus!

Actually, again, this won’t happen.  There are no buses that follow the route of the streetcar — which is actually why this proposal makes a hell of a lot of sense.  The current route of most buses takes them along Wisconsin Avenue through the downtown area only.  There’s only two other bus routes that travel east/west along a different street.  That works well enough for the morning and evening commutes, but if the goal is to allow for easier movement within the downtown area you need to allow people to conveniently locate and use transit.   Someone working at MSOE would be hard pressed to find a bus that would take them to the Amtrak station or the US Bank building.    Putting a fixed loop around the downtown provides a significant permanent presence to tourists, workers and anyone else using our downtown that they will be able to conveniently get around without the use of their car.

The reason buses are empty is because no one feels they can rely on them for anything other than work, if that.  That’s a completely different issue that a streetcar will not fix, nor hinder.

So why not just use buses?

Because buses will not add additional value to our downtown and they do not signify a permanent transit presence for our business community, which, direct or indirect, helps generates the largest amount of tax money.  In addition, buses may be able to change routes on the fly, but the purpose of a streetcar circulator is to signify an area where we intend to permanently assist people in getting around.  We aren’t going to be moving our downtown, so we do not need to account for maneuverability in any system.

Isn’t this bad for businesses? I bet it’s bad for business. TaxHellWisconsin!

Many businesses are already on record indicating their support for a streetcar and it’s partially because they know it’s going to be around forever.  Look no further than the recent talk of bus route cuts in Bayview and other neighborhoods — how is that supposed to instill confidence among residents, businesses or outside investors that our community is committed to providing a viable transit system for its citizens?  Streetcars present a more cost-effective option than light rail, but with the permanency any circulating system needs in order to allow for future development around it.  This permanency, in turn, provides businesses with confidence that they’ll be able to draw customers from a larger area than if transit coverage is circumspect.

We can’t pay for it! How are we going to pay for it?

A sales tax increase of 1%, most likely, will fund a Regional Transit Authority that will administer the streetcar system and, hopefully, the bus systems of Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties.  Should the KRM commuter rail line also come to fruition, that will also fall under it’s umbrella.  Sure, the Milwaukee County Board will complain that it’s left out of the picture, but they have enough problems to deal with that if they can be provided with an amicable “exit strategy” that allows them to save face and show they saved transit,  I’m sure they would willingly concede control.  The longer they fight this change, the more they will look like an obstacle.

But I hate sales taxes and taxes of any kind?

No one likes taxes, but it’s the most fair and efficient way to pay for public services.  Paying an additional $1 every time you spend $100 at Sonic isn’t that onerous of a burden on you and it actually will go towards creating a better connected region.   If you feel it’s in your best interests to begin shopping exclusively in Waukesha County in order to save a penny on the dollar, more power to you.  Your property tax reduction from shifting the transit system off the property tax rolls should give you enough money to buy several gallons of gas for your car (until its price goes up and you suddenly change your mind about rail).

There’s obviously more questions that will need to be answered about the circulator,  but these general points about transit are where a lot of people are misinformed.  The sooner we can convey the facts and benefits about this plan, the sooner this shot in the arm for Milwaukee can come to fruition.

One Comment
  1. March 20, 2009 12:10 pm

    The RTA (full disclosure, I serve on the RTA Steering Committee with the goal to create a permanent regional transit authority and dedicated funding source) is working on a half percent sales tax (.5%) as a funding source. The governor’s budget includes the ability for the KRM/RTA counties to raise their sales taxes as such. Has to get through the legislature, and then be enacted locally (dependent on final language).

    Revenues from the sales tax would be used to bond the creation of the KRM line, in addition to funding existing transit services in the three counties. This would remove transit from the property tax rolls (knowing that 30% of sales tax is paid by out of county residents in Milwaukee County).

    The streetcar isn’t officially part of any RTA plans, but a local committee in each of the three counties (but not made up of just county level officials) would decide how the funds are spent locally minus the costs of running the KRM. A portion of the tax from Milwaukee County could be spent on the streetcar.

    Also worth noting that the original plans for the KRM included a circulator bus at the end of the line. There is a possible that may not be needed if there was a streetcar. Food for thought.

    Let me know if you have any questions about it, be happy to talk more about it with you.

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