The intense scrutiny over one of Milwaukee’s most controversial public works projects ever has only just begun.
After years of debate about the $128 million downtown streetcar project, it is finally under construction. Mayor Tom Barrett, most of the Common Council and other city officials have supported and advanced it. About $69 million of the cost will be paid for with federal funds and $59 million with city funds from tax increment financing districts.[caption id="attachment_320989" align="alignright" width="350"] Work continues on the track for the downtown streetcar.[/caption]
There are a huge number of skeptics who are convinced that “the trolley” will be an epic failure with few riders and higher construction and operating costs than what city officials are promising. For them, the streetcar is the ultimate symbol of government waste. Some say the funds should be used for another purpose. The federal money is allocated for transportation and dedicated to this specific project, but the TIF funds are siphoned off from the city’s general fund.
Supporters of the streetcar, which include some of Milwaukee’s most prominent business leaders, say it is an important investment in the city that will help attract more talent and economic development downtown.
The streetcar has become a whipping boy for critics of city leaders, and that criticism is only going to get worse. If you think the MMSD’s deep tunnel took a lot of public abuse after overflows during heavy rainstorms, just wait. You haven’t seen (or heard) anything yet. Now that the project is underway, the streetcar’s critics are going to pounce and harp on every problem it has, big and small.
It didn’t take long for something to come up. In just the early stages of streetcar construction, led by Omaha, Nebraska-based Kiewit Corp., a crew digging up Broadway accidently cut five AT&T lines, knocking out phone and internet service for dozens of Milwaukee businesses for much of the week in late May.
The streetcar critics were quick to howl about the gaffe as if to say, “told you so.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works said the cost to repair the AT&T lines will be worked out by the contractor and the utility. I hope so. Taxpayers had better not be on the hook. But what about the loss of revenue to the businesses whose phone and internet service were interrupted?
Of course, there are sometimes issues during public works projects, but the public has a right to expect competence from the individuals doing this work on our community’s infrastructure.
When it’s all said and done, the streetcar will be successful if it is built and operated on budget, if it attracts riders, if development is built along the route and if the city can attract federal funds to add more routes. We shall see.