Streetcar supporters say project is still alive

Although some opponents of the downtown Milwaukee streetcar project believe it was dealt a death knell Thursday by a state Legislature committee, supporters of the streetcar say the project remains very much alive.

Opponents of the streetcar are cheering Thursday’s action by the Joint Finance Committee in support of a budget measure that would require the city, and not utility ratepayers, to pay for any utility relocation costs associated with the project.

“The ratepayers and downtown Milwaukee businesses affected by Mayor (Tom) Barrett’s desire for a streetcar can now begin to breathe easier,” Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa; Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin; Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills; Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield; and Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, said in a joint statement.

“I am pleased with the action (Thursday) by the Legislature’s budget committee to approve a budget motion that very likely means the end of the line for the downtown streetcar project,” said Ald. Robert Donovan, a vocal opponent of the project.

However, the exact cost to relocate utilities for the streetcar project has yet to be determined, so it is unclear if the action by the Legislature will definitively kill the project.

And supporters of the streetcar say the final design of the project should drastically reduce, if not totally eliminate, any utility relocation costs.

Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown Milwaukee area and is a major supporter of the streetcar project, said that the utility relocation costs for the project will be insignificant and predicted that the project will move forward despite the state budget measure, which still needs to be approved by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The measure approved Thursday by the Joint Finance Committee “doesn’t affect the (streetcar project) at all,” Bauman said.

“I agree,” said Ald. Nik Kovac. “It’s been a phony issue from the beginning.”

Utility relocation costs for the project have been estimated at between $50 million-70 million, and could affect Wisconsin Energy Corp., AT&T, Time Warner Cable and American Transmission Co. But Bauman said those costs estimates are “totally bogus” and “propaganda.”

“I’ve always said the utility costs (for the streetcar project) will be zero,” he said. “There’s no need to move these (utility) lines.”

The high utility relocation cost estimates were made before any of the final design and engineering work for the project began to address those concerns, said city engineer Jeff Polenske.

“The goal is to minimize those costs, if not eliminate them,” he said. “This is playing out in the public eye, but this is no different than the procedure we go through for each and every public works project.”

“There are lots of big and small changes that can be made to the routing of the project,” Kovac said. “There’s a way to route this through our downtown that will minimize any utility relocation costs.”

A spokesperson for Wisconsin Energy Corp. said that some of its utility lines might need to be moved for the streetcar project. The company could need to relocate some electric and gas lines, but the biggest cost could be for the relocation of some steam lines, said spokeswoman Cathy Schulze. The lines would need to be relocated to provide necessary separation from the streetcar rail line and so that they can be accessed for maintenance, she said.

The cost to relocate the Wisconsin Energy utility lines for the streetcar project has yet to be determined, Schulze said. That cost cannot be determined until a final route is determined and the design and engineering work for the streetcar is complete, she said.

“We have been working with the city, and will continue to work with the city to lower the (utility line) relocation costs,” Schulze said.

The city will proceed with final design and engineering for the streetcar project, which will determine the actual utility relocation costs, said Jodie Tabak, spokeswoman for Barrett.

“The intent was to minimize the impact on the utilities,” she said.

The planned two-mile route for the streetcar runs from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station east along St. Paul Avenue, north on Broadway, east on Wells Street, north on Van Buren Street (southbound streetcars would use Jackson Street) and then east on Ogden Avenue to Farwell Avenue.

The exact route has not been finalized and the portion of the route on Broadway could be split, with northbound streetcars on Milwaukee Street and southbound streetcars on Broadway, to eliminate any impact on AT&T’s underground infrastructure, Bauman and Polenske said.

Slight adjustments of the streetcar path within the roadways can eliminate other utility line conflicts, Polenske said.

The estimated cost of the streetcar project is $65 million. The city has nearly $55 million in federal funds for the project and the remaining cost would be paid for with local funding sources. But the cost of relocating utility lines would add to that cost estimate.

Engineering and design work for the project still could be complete in time to begin construction next year. The streetcar could be operational in 2016, Polenske said.

But since the city will have to pay for any utility relocation costs for the project Donovan said the streetcar funds should be shifted to street repairs instead.

If the city has to pay for utility line relocation for the streetcar project, “I believe chances are slim to none that the full Common Council will stand pat and let the project go forward,” Donovan said. “I believe that money should (instead) be used to fix our crumbling streets and I have a Legislative Reference Bureau estimate stating that for $54 million we could re-pave 1,000 blocks of city streets.”

The streetcar project will be addressed during a National Train Day event at 11 a.m., Saturday, at the Intermodal Station, 433 W. St. Paul Ave., Milwaukee, Bauman said.

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