Debunking objections to the Milwaukee streetcar

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Update Feb. 10: The Milwaukee Common Council approved the streetcar connecting downtown to the lower east side the morning of Feb. 10. 

Ald. Bob Donovan claims Milwaukee’s streetcar project would divert $100 million of taxpayer money from education and other beneficial programs, but that’s simply not true. Here are some of the other popular objections to the streetcar, followed by responses from Jeff Fleming, spokesman for the Milwaukee Department of City Development.

1. The streetcar project will raise property taxes. This is false. Two downtown Tax Incremental Districts will issue $20 million in bonds to borrow money for the project. The money will be repaid by taxes that are based on the increase in value on properties in those districts only. That’s only fair, because real-estate owners in those two districts will benefit from an increase in value resulting from the streetcars. No one else’s taxes will be used for the streetcar.

2. The money for the streetcar project should be reallocated to something else, such as education. That’s not how it works. The $54 million federal grant for the project has been allocated specifically for rail in Milwaukee, and the city must either use it that way or lose it. The rest of the money cannot be reallocated, because it doesn’t exist. It’s being raised specifically to finance the streetcar. If the streetcar brings more economic activity and jobs to Milwaukee, however, it will increase the city’s tax base in a good way. The extra money could be used to finance other projects or provide property tax relief.

3. Streetcars have been colossal failures in other cities. While not everyone in every city with a streetcar system loves it, streetcars have been successful in measurable ways in most of the cities that have adopted them. Many of those cities have either expanded their lines or are in the process of doing so.

4. The tracks are going to hurt my tires and cause traffic jams. This hasn’t been a problem in the scores of other cities with streetcars. Streetcars reduce traffic in dense areas, so they are far more likely to thwart traffic jams than cause them.

5. Taxpayers will have to pay to maintain the streetcar. This is true. Taxpayer money is used to pay for all forms of public transportation, including highways, buses, airports and rail. There is no mode of public transportation that pays for itself. Most people mistakenly believe that gas taxes pay for highways, but that is not true. Gas taxes don’t begin to pay for the massive cost of maintaining roads. The money comes from a variety of funds, including your property taxes.

6. The strong economic development trajectory that downtown Milwaukee is on right now would continue without infrastructure improvements such as streetcars. There’s no way to respond to this definitively, but a large number of important business leaders want the streetcars. Some of them are unwilling to commit to locating their workforces downtown without a way to avoid building massive parking structures or a way to move people easily around the downtown area. Streetcars help resolve both of those concerns. According to city estimates, building the streetcar system could clinch several billion dollars worth of development deals, bringing more money and jobs to Milwaukee. That’s one of the reasons why hardcore Republicans and people in rural areas are against the streetcar: They don’t want to see the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee succeed, even though the city is the state’s primary economic engine and its success benefits them, too.