Milwaukee Streetcar Project To Go Before City Council

Opponents Of Plan, However, Plan To Delay Vote

Milwaukee's streetcar system would be similar to the one that's been operating in Portland, Ore. since 2001. Photo: Paul Sableman (CC-BY).

Wisconsin’s first modern streetcar may get a small push forward on Wednesday from the Milwaukee Common Council.

Conservatives, however, are trying to stop the streetcar project from moving into high gear, and say Milwaukee is better off letting citizens vote on the matter this spring.

The first thing backers of the streetcar emphasize is that the project is not something out a Judy Garland movie. Rather, the streetcar would be a fully enclosed short string of rail-like cars powered by overhead electric wires, and would glide on a rail built into the street like the streetcars in Portland, Ore.

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A Milwaukee business group called the Westown Association recently allowed Mayor Tom Barrett to make another pitch for the streetcar. Barrett emphasized that federal money is there for most of the construction and early operating costs. For several years, the streetcar would just be in the city’s downtown and near east side.

Barrett said if Milwaukee doesn’t begin building a streetcar system, the funding will go elsewhere, similar to how Gov. Scott Walker rejected funding for high-speed rail in Wisconsin five years ago.

“If we say no to this money, then it could go to the Cincinnati streetcar. It could go to the Salt Lake City streetcar. It could go to light rail in Saint Louis, and of course then it would produce zero jobs here,” said Barrett.

Barrett said building the Milwaukee streetcar would create about 700 construction jobs and a smaller number of transit jobs later. He also said the streetcar may eventually be extended to other parts of the city, but that the downtown has the greatest population density.

On Tuesday morning, a coalition of large businesses, including The Manpower Group, Johnson Controls and the Marcus Corporation released a letter supporting the project, joining a long list of others already cheering the streetcar. Pabst Theater Group CEO Gary Witt said the streetcar would run a block or two from his venue and help businesses build a more engaged downtown community.

“The greatest change agent in the city of Milwaukee is participation,” said Witt. “It’s no longer rich guys, it’s no longer loudmouthed radio hosts, it’s participation.”

Witt clarified that he meant conservative talk show hosts on commercial stations. Those hosts have teamed with a few conservative aldermen to try to block the streetcar. Alderman Bob Donovan said he doubts having a streetcar would make Milwaukee a better draw for tourists and younger people.

“I have have to laugh at that argument that somehow having a 8 mile-per-hour fixed-track streetcar is going to attract millennials, young professionals to Milwaukee,” said Donovan.

But Donovan and a conservative taxpayer group that helped Scott Walker get elected Milwaukee County executive almost 15 years ago said on Tuesday afternoon that they’re still short on collecting the 30,000 or so petition signatures needed to force a binding referendum in April on the streetcar. The conservatives are expected to try to delay most of the streetcar-related items scheduled to be before the common council on Wednesday by three weeks.