Why Barrett’s streetcar is far from a done deal.

Mayor Tom Barrett wants a streetcar loop for downtown. For $124 million and $2.5 a year, Milwaukee will build the route in blue. (These are the numbers I remember, but I doubt they are too far from correct.)

mwsc_route-newmap

There is considerable push-back from the community. A group, including a well-trod conservative organization, is working to gain signatures and force a referendum. The right-sided political thinkers have aligned with the left-leaning North side of Milwaukee in this goal. The unusual allegiance should be enough to make Milwaukee pause and think this one through, but there’s a lot of money to developers at stake, so that’s not happening.

A real reporter would grab copies of Tom Barrett’s campaign finance reports and see exactly who is on the list of potential fund recipients by deciphering donations, but I’ll just toss out a generalization and suggest it’s the usual suspects. You know, that 1% that everyone bickers about so bitterly. The developers swear there’s no way they’ll make a commitment to build in Milwaukee unless the streetcar is approved. They do the same thing when they swear they need to buy multi-million dollar publicly owned property for half a million or their numbers won’t work.

We are a capitalist country. Developers, if your project won’t work without government subsidies, then it’s not ready to be built. Get over it.

There are two parts to my argument today: 1) The TIF that needs to be implemented (and another expanded) is the vehicle by which Milwaukee can stop this train, and 2) While the want for reliable and safe public transportation is paramount to the success of Milwaukee, this initial route as planned will further divide the city rather than unite it.

Tax Incremental Finance districts are ridiculous in my opinion in all cases but one – a true brownfield, contaminated land that must be remediated before it can be used again. The tanneries in the Valley, for instance. A printing shop or gas station where the land has been damaged, for others. To subsidize developer infrastructure is a crummy way to use them. The TIF districts hoard the taxes from other taxing districts (schools, county) and toss it straight into a developer’s bank account as they are mostly being used today. In my suburb of Brookfield, TIFs have such a bad reputation that the city planning department has renamed them TIDs (Tax Increment Districts) in an attempt to divert the bad vibes. (It hasn’t worked.)

To create the TIF district, the city will need to implement a Joint Review Board. Someone from the County, Milwaukee Public Schools, and MATC will sit on this board and must approve the plan since funding will be diverted from their budgets. (Trouble sleeping? You can read more about TIFs here.) If MPS really doesn’t like millions in tax revenue being drained from their students to the developers, they can stop it. If the County doesn’t like the Airport being left out of the plan, then they can stop it.

And why hasn’t a real reporter nailed Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s opinion on this project? He’s been incredibly quiet. I am suspicious. Could it be that he wants to be mayor?

I’m going to take as fact that the federal money can not be reallocated without U.S. Congressional intervention. But, I refuse the argument that federal money is always worth taking. In this case, the cost to the schools through the TIFs for the other half is just too high.

Next in my argument is how the project will further divide rather than unite one of the already most divisive cities in the nation. Keep in mind, blacks in the north of Milwaukee are not impressed. Urban Milwaukee all but argued that blacks are being used in this alliance. Milwaukee Alderman Joe Davis, Sr., a leader in the Black community, has an alternative plan with an important argument: why not use what rail we have to provide transportation for jobs? And just in case we weren’t all confused, a group called Milwaukee Passenger Rail Company has opined with another alternative.

While Urban Milwaukee sought to make the blacks victims again in their article, I think the group is making a strong argument that public transportation should take workers to jobs, not 1%ers to a quick lunch. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in the heart of Milwaukee, but the difficulties between the inner-city communities are as big as the recognized division between city and suburb. Link the communities and make employment outside their own neighborhoods easier. That moves Milwaukee forward.

My daughter has even weighed in on the streetcar. She’s finishing her last semester in college, but wants to come back to Milwaukee to build a career. No brain-drain here – she likes where she calls home. And she considers that home Milwaukee, not Brookfield. We discussed the streetcar when she was here over break. She even considered writing her own piece, but the time got away from her. (Surely you know how that can happen!) Anyway, below are her quick thoughts.

–She’s lived in Milwaukee and was dependent on MCTS for that time. She lived on Cambridge near Brady and commuted by bus to work on State Street in Wauwatosa. (Mommy tossed her out of the house when she took a year off. Mean mommy. That year had the most remarkable consequences, but more on that in a minute.) She experienced an attempted robbery while waiting for the bus, and she was robbed IN PUBLIC ON THE BUS (her emphasis.) I will add that the bus driver wouldn’t even stop to call the police.

She continues:

– as Milwaukeeans we are fiercely proud of where we come from
– as Milwaukeeans we also know the issues we face

Here’s a buzzfeed link 15 Reasons Why Milwaukee Is Better Than The Last City You Lived In where she highlights: “We don’t deny the faults in our city.” It’s from point 15.

Also, she says:

I understand all the economic growth the streetcar would provide. Here is where my argument is lost: I am completely selfish in not wanting the streetcar. I don’t want all the Millenials here. I’m eager to move back to Milwaukee after graduating because I know I can afford it, but the second all these young people from all over come to the city, soon that studio I had 2 miles from the lake just North of Farwell and Brady (I mean, prime location) will be double the $495 I paid to live in that spacious place.

I presently live in Brooklyn, New York, so I am fairly versed in experiencing these rent changes (although they happen ten times faster and involve ten times the money, essentially) only because I am part of that problem… ‘problem’ – I am part of the gentrification.

Then here’s the place where her mother laughed out loud!

“The justification for all of this is that it will be considered groovy by the well-heeled millennials and empty-nested Baby Boomers that live downtown. My colleagues and I joke that we will be able to ride the streetcar (which will stop close to our office on Burns Square) to the Milwaukee Club to meet with conservative donors at taxpayer expense. But we won’t. It will be quicker to walk.”
Rick Esenberg

I LOVE that last dude’s thinking.

(She loves Rick Essenberg’s thinking. I sent a kid who wanted to save the world to the East Side for one year, and she’s now quoting one of the best conservative thinkers in Milwaukee. Isn’t parenting the best?)

Then she finishes:

FIX OUR CURRENT TRANSPORTATION BEFORE DOING THIS.

While Abele is silent, County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic said:

Take a walk with me down Milwaukee’s future memory lane. After enjoying local flavors at the Milwaukee Public Market, we take a ride on the modern streetcar and head quickly to the Milwaukee Art Museum. We hop off at the lakefront and visit the museum to see the newest exhibit for free. The new sales tax our community supported has helped fund our cultural assets, so we can all access this world-renowned art without paying for admission. We walk across the bridge to rent a bike at the transportation hub housed in the Couture and ride to do some shopping at the revitalized Shops of Grand Avenue.

I want something different. I want the Twin Cities ride from the airport to downtown without leaving the building for less than $5. What is that you say? Expensive taxis a thing of the past? I want the plan integrated as a whole vision for Milwaukee. I want something so safe that I can pop on and off without worrying what valuables I might be carrying. And I want transportation from the communities where workers live to the place that they are employed.

The way I see it, Milwaukee is making an enormous mistake by not plotting a bigger picture. Where’s the on-again-off-again sports arena in all this? (By the way, they want a TIF, too.) What’s the best and least expensive way to move conventioneers from the airport to downtown?

Everyone to the table, boys and girls. It’s time to get this one right. A half-thought attempt will hurt Milwaukee in ways that can not be repaired.

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