Coalition launches petition drive to stop streetcar project

Milwaukee Aldermen Bob Donovan and Joe Davis Jr. announced today that they are leading a coalition of citizens, activists, businesses and politicians that has launched a petition drive in an attempt to pass direct legislation to stop the proposed $123.9 million downtown streetcar project.

The CRG Network, which organized the recall effort of former Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament during the Milwaukee County pension scandal, will provide legal, technical and logistical support for the petition drive by Donovan and Davis’ group, called United for Milwaukee.

Donovan and Davis are both running for mayor next year against incumbent Mayor and streetcar supporter Tom Barrett.

United for Milwaukee is comprised of community leaders representing Milwaukee’s urban community, neighborhood groups, elected officials, taxpayer groups, hospitality industry representatives, senior adults, millennials and law enforcement and fire fighters, according to a press release from the group.

With the petition drive, United for Milwaukee wants to pass a measure by direct legislation that would require the city to hold a binding referendum in order to build any rail transit system that costs more than $20 million.

The group needs to gather 31,000 signatures before the current streetcar legislation is passed, or within 60 days, whichever comes first. If it does, the Common Council could either accept the law requested by the petition drive or it could hold a referendum to ask voters whether or not the law should be adopted.

If approved by voters, then any city rail transit project costing more than $20 million would require approval by referendum.

The Common Council last month voted to delay a vote on the streetcar legislation until its Jan. 21 meeting. But the vote appeared to indicate the measure will eventually pass. Another parliamentary procedure maneuver could push the matter off until February for a final vote.

Chris Kliesmet, executive administrator of the CRG Network, said the goal of the petition drive will be to get 35,000 signatures gathered by the Jan. 21 Common Council meeting. He said the support for the petition drive is, “pretty remarkable.”

The initial streetcar route would run from the Intermodal Station, at 433 W. St. Paul Ave., northeast through the Historic Third Ward, downtown and ending at Ogden and Farwell avenues on the Lower East Side. The initial route plans also includes a spur to the proposed Couture project at the lakefront. The cost to build the streetcar system would be paid for with $64.9 million in federal funds and $59 million from tax incremental financing districts. The total $123.9 million cost includes an estimated $22.7 million in utility relocation costs, which must be borne by the city. Construction on the project could begin this year and the streetcar could be operational in 2018.

Supporters of the streetcar project say it would spur economic development attracting businesses and residents, especially members of the millennial generation, along the route.

However, opponents say the streetcar would be a massive waste of taxpayer money and would attract few riders.

“The streetcar proposal will have significant short and long-term implications on the city’s finances,” Donovan and Davis said in a joint statement. “Using tax incremental financing districts to pay for the project redirects precious tax dollars away from other entities including business growth which will support job initiatives to help relieve Milwaukee’s national embarrassment of having the highest poverty and unemployment rates for African-American men in the U.S., fire and police agencies, public schools, public works projects, and the opportunity for tax relief for the city’s already overburdened taxpayers. This $123 million plan has been described as the first of several phases of the project. There are, however, no funding sources identified for these extraordinary future capital expenses and no plans to even cover the operating expenses of the first phase after three years. Before we create an unbearable mortgage for generations of city taxpayers, we believe it is critical to let the people decide if this is the right direction for Milwaukee.”

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