Walker is the fly in Barrett’s transit ointment

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:42 pm

In terms of the likelihood of a streetcar loop ever being developed in downtown Milwaukee, it takes three to tango.

Before $91.5 million in federal transit dollars can be spent, Milwaukee County Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle each would have to agree on its use.

Barrett wants to use some of the federal funds to establish a three-mile downtown streetcar loop. However, Walker is staunchly opposed to it, and his opposition, as long as he stays in office, effectively blocks the proposal.

“At this point, it appears the county executive would be the road block to this,” said Harold Mester, spokesman for the Milwaukee County Board.

Barrett wants to use federal funds and tax incremental financing (TIF) district revenue to establish the downtown streetcar service. In the early 1990s, Milwaukee received more than $200 million from the federal government for transportation projects. Some of the money was used for the Marquette Interchange reconstruction, the Sixth Street viaduct construction and the removal of the Park East freeway spur. Today, $91.5 million remains unspent. Barrett wants to use about half of those funds for the downtown streetcar.

The streetcar would run on a rail along Fourth Street, Juneau Avenue, St. Paul Avenue and either Jackson Street or Van Buren Street, depending on the direction. It would connect the downtown Amtrak train station to much of the rest of downtown. The project could move into the preliminary engineering phase with the support of three of the four members of the Milwaukee Connector study committee, comprised of representatives of the city, the county, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and the Wisconsin Center District.

Walker said he opposes the streetcar because the rail-based system lacks the flexibility of a bus, and its route would not serve most of the people who need mass transit service.

“The transit-dependent population are predominantly (living) in the central and northwestern part of the city of Milwaukee,” Walker said. “To me, mass transit should be a means of getting people to and from work and to and from school.”

Walker and Barrett will both be up for re-election next year. Their positions on the downtown streetcar proposal and other mass transit-related issues could play a major role in the mayoral and county executive campaigns.

Barrett wants to spend the other half of the $91.5 million in federal funds on new rapid transit buses with two routes, one from Wauwatosa through downtown to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and another from the Midtown neighborhood through downtown to General Mitchell International Airport.

Walker said he supports that plan, and he thinks all of the federal funds should be used to enhance the county bus system, instead of the downtown streetcar.

Fiscal crisis

The bus system, operated by the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), is facing a serious financial crisis. A report issued recently by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) said MCTS will likely need to make severe cuts in service and will have to raise fares significantly by 2010 if current state, federal and county funding trends continue.

The solution, some city aldermen and county board supervisors say, is to provide a dedicated funding source for MCTS so that it is not competing with other county departments for property tax revenue. Some have backed a sales tax increase for that purpose, saying it would provide the funding source needed for the bus system, would reduce property taxes and would bring in revenue from outside of the county.

However, Walker is also opposed to  increasing the sales tax for the county bus system. Since his election, Walker has worked to keep the county property tax levy from increasing. Critics say this has hurt some county departments and has contributed to the financial problems of the bus system.

“Walker has run out of bulls—t at this point,” said Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area. “People are finally getting the message that he has devastated the transit system. The bloody dagger is in his hands and people are starting to see that.”

“The bottom line is there are a lot of people out there with new ways to spend our money,” Walker said. “The bus system, long-term, needs support beyond where it’s at. I’m one of those guys that believes we don’t need to be taxed more. My fear is that would drive people and jobs out of the county.”

Barrett said he opposes a sales tax increase unless some of the funds are used for public safety needs. The governor’s proposed tax on oil companies could provide revenue for mass transit needs in Milwaukee, Barrett said.

Walker wants the state to use future growth from sales tax revenue from vehicle sales to fund mass transit systems in the state, including MCTS. He says that would create $33 million in the next state budget and $103 million in the following state budget.

However, despite the posturing of local officials on the issue, it is the state legislature and Doyle that must approve any sales tax increase or other state funding change to bail out MCTS. Doyle spokesman Matt Canter said the governor opposes Walker’s vehicle sales tax proposal because it would drain funds from schools and other needs. And any sales tax increase proposal will face an uphill battle in gaining approval from the Republican-controlled state Assembly.

Commuter rail

In addition, the legislature and Doyle must decide what to do with the proposed commuter rail service between Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee (called the KRM). The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has endorsed a $13 increase in the car rental tax to pay for the service. However, the Milwaukee County Board and Milwaukee Common Council voted against the KRM car rental tax because the RTA has not recommended a funding source to solve the MCTS problems.

Mester said Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway “is not going to support anything unless it includes funding for our existing mass transit.”

However, the action by the Common Council and County Board were only symbolic votes, and the fates of the KRM and the MCTS are in the hands of Doyle and the legislature.

“If there is a taxing solution, it has to arise in the legislature,” Barrett said.

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