Aldermen approve downtown streetcar project

The Milwaukee Common Council this morning approved the two-mile, $65 million downtown Milwaukee Streetcar project.
Aldermen voted 10-5 to move the streetcar project forward. Supporters led by downtown Alderman Robert Bauman and East Side Aldermen Nik Kovac said the streetcar project would create construction jobs, stimulate economic development along the streetcar route and would improve mobility in the downtown area.

“This will be a catalyst for real estate development,” Bauman said. “That’s been the experience of every other city that’s done this.”
Fixed rail systems attract more riders than buses because occasional transit users prefer transit line that they can actually see where it goes, Bauman said.

Funding for the project includes $54.9 million in federal funds that were allocated to Milwaukee in 1991 for mass transit, but have never been spent because local officials could not agree on what the money would be used for. Congressional action in 2009 allocated the funds to be spent for the downtown streetcar project and allocated another $36.6 million in unspent federal transit funds for Milwaukee County buses.

The city of Milwaukee will provide $9.7 million for the streetcar project. Those funds will come from the Cathedral Place tax incremental financing (TIF) district.

Bauman and Kovac argued that the federal funds could only be used for the streetcar project and would be sent to another city if the project was shot down.

Aldermen Jim Bohl, Joe Davis, Robert Donovan, Michael Murphy and Joe Dudzik voted in opposition to the streetcar project. They raised concerns about the ultimate costs of the project, including future operating and maintenance costs, and expressed doubts about the economic impact that the streetcar would provide.

“It is an absolutely horrible idea,” Dudzik said. “The people that vote for this will be working to take the city that is the fourth poorest in the nation and move it closer to being the poorest.”

Donovan proposed an amendment to have the streetcar project decided by a referendum, but that proposal was shot down by a 3-12 vote.
“Let the people decide,” he said.

Kovac argued that aldermen should vote on the streetcar project, just as they do for any other public works project.

“Do people expect us to come to them (in a referendum) every time we spend millions of dollars on a public works project?” Kovac said.
The streetcar route goes from the Intermodal Station east on St. Paul Avenue, north on Broadway, east on Wells Street north on Van Buren Street (heading south it would use Jackson Street) and then east on Ogden Avenue to the Farwell Avenue intersection. However, the route could be changed if engineers determine the cost of the project will exceed $65 million. Wisconsin Energy Corp. and AT&T have raised concerns about the cost to move utilities on Broadway for the streetcar.

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