Tag Archives: transit

Milwaukee County Transit honors Rosa Parks with open seat

The Milwaukee County Transit System is keeping a seat open and the headlights shining on its entire fleet on Dec. 1  to honor the life of Rosa Parks and her contribution to equal rights.

Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 1, 1955.

Her act of civil disobedience led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation on public transportation.

“This country was changed for the better that day Rosa Parks refused to give into racism and oppression,” County Executive Chris Abele stated in a release. “While we can never truly thank her for her bravery, we mark the occasion to remember and honor her courage.”

Every bus in the MCTS fleet has a seat reserved in honor of Rosa Parks. The signs feature a picture of Parks on the bus and one of her famous quotes: “My only concern was to get home after a hard day’s work.”

On the Web

Learn about Rosa Parks.

Medical providers try Uber, Lyft for patients with few transportation options

Edith Stowe, 83, waited patiently on a recent afternoon at the bus stop outside MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia. It’s become routine for her, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Stowe, who lives about five miles from the hospital, comes into the medical center twice every three months to get checkups for chronic kidney failure. She doesn’t own a car and relies on buses. During rush hour, buses are more frequent, and she can keep the commute to about 30 minutes. But when she has to come in the middle of the day, it takes her at least an hour to get in and another hour to get home.

“It’s pretty good except for waiting during non-rush hours,” she said. “When that happens I don’t plan anything else for the day.”

For people without access to private transportation, getting to medical appointments can be a challenge, especially if they have chronic conditions that require frequent appointments.

Some hospitals and medical providers think that the hot-new technology in town — ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft — can address this problem by making the trips easier and, in some cases, it is even covered by Medicaid and other insurance plans.

Partnerships between ride-hailing companies and hospitals are emerging around the country. While the efforts are still small, some hospitals and medical transportation providers think the potential for growth is large.

MedStar Health, a nonprofit health care system with hospitals in Maryland and the district began a partnership with Uber in January that allows its patients who use Uber to access the ride service while on the hospital’s website and set up reminders for appointments. Medicaid patients who may not have access to the Uber app can also arrange the ride by calling the hospital’s patient advocates.

National MedTrans Network, a transportation system that provides non-emergency medical rides for patients and medical providers in a number of states, expanded its services through a partnership with Lyft last year in New York, California and Nevada.

Hackensack UMC, a hospital in New Jersey, the Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida, and Relatient, a health care communication company have also announced partnerships with Uber in the past year. Veyo, a San Diego startup, says it is offering a ride-hail-like technology for health care appointments in Idaho, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and California.

“We probably had 50 different systems across the country reach out to us and ask us ‘How did you do it?’” said Michael Ruiz, chief digital officer for MedStar. “I would say that it has been a seismic shift for the people who have used the service and the places we’ve provided it.”

Patients’ costs for the services vary. For Medicaid patients, transportation for non-emergency medical visits are covered, although the extent of reimbursement depends on state rules. Traditional Medicare does not cover non-emergency medical transportation, although some private Medicare Advantage plans may offer some benefits. 

Getting To Your Doctor

When going to a medical appointment becomes a hassle, patients are likely to miss the visit, and that can help lead to untreated symptoms or worsening health.

“Transportation can make it difficult for people to see health care providers on a regular basis,” said Ben Gerber, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied patient transportation issues. “It is important to see health care professionals regularly, especially for patients with diabetes or asthma.”

In a 2013 analysis of 25 studies, Gerber and colleagues found that 10 to 51 percent of patients reported that lack of transportation is a barrier to health care access. One of those studies showed that 82 percent of those who kept their appointments had access to cars, while 58 percent of those who did not keep appointments had that access. Another study reported bus users were twice as likely to skip on appointments compared to car users.

A bus arrives at the bus circle at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia in July 2016. The hospital is served by many buses, vans and shuttles that come through the circle frequently. (Zhai Yun Tan/KHN)

A bus arrives at the bus circle at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia in July 2016. Stowe gets to the medical center by bus, but when her appointments are in the middle of the day, it takes her at least an hour to get in and another hour to get home. (Zhai Yun Tan/KHN)

In addition to concerns about patients’ health, those absences can also be expensive for medical institutions, which lose revenue from the missed appointment.

Hospitals and managed care organizations do offer a variety of options to assist with transportation for non-emergency medical appointments. Health centers often work with volunteer drivers to pick up and drop off patients.

Patients can call them ahead of time to arrange a ride, but these services generally require advance planning, which becomes a problem when the patient needs to go in for an unscheduled appointment or if the patient forgets to book ahead.

Some patients also end up calling 911 for non-emergency situations, potentially diverting resources that could be used for others with more pressing needs.

Timely Services 

The National Medtrans Network partnership with Lyft began after an incident in February 2015. One of its clients, an elderly woman, was left waiting for a ride to a hospital in New York in freezing weather for 30 minutes. The contracted provider failed to show up.

“It was almost a dangerous situation,” said CEO Andrew Winakor. When his company was notified of the situation, officials immediately called a ride-hail service. The ride arrived within six minutes. Winakor said Medtrans officials realized they had to find a transportation option that could respond immediately to canceled rides.

But ride-hailing services do have some disadvantages. Wheel-chair friendly rides are still limited to a few cities. They also depend on the availability of drivers, which might be scarce in rural areas and low-income communities.

MedStar in Washington, dealt with the problem in one of its hospitals in rural Maryland, where there was a lack of Uber drivers, when a patient there had to travel to the flagship hospital in D.C. for an outpatient surgery at 6 a.m.

“Our social workers worked with the folks at Uber to be able to coordinate the ride to pick this patient up at 4:30 am, and coordinate the ride back,” Ruiz said.

Buses, vans and local public transportation for people in wheelchairs come and go frequently in MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s bus center. Stowe is satisfied with the transport options available. While she hasn’t used Uber before, she said it is something she wouldn’t mind trying especially when it gets cold outside.

“There are times when you come out and you really don’t feel that well. If Uber is here, it’d be really nice to have it,” said Stowe.

This story by Zhai Yun Tan was made available by Kaiser Health News, a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Study: Transportation sector now top carbon polluter

The U.S. transportation sector has produced more carbon pollution than any other sector of the economy over the last 12 months, including the electric power, industrial, residential, and commercial sectors.

The results, released by the U.S. Energy and Information Administration, mark the first time that carbon emissions from the transportation sector have exceeded emissions from each of the other sectors since 1979.

“These recent findings are an important wake-up call that highlights the need for urgent action to combat global warming-causing pollution from transportation sources,” said John Olivieri, national campaign director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group.

“This is the first time in nearly 40 years that this has happened,” he added.

The new data present both good and bad news.

Carbon pollution from the electric power sector has decreased some as policymakers have focused more on reducing emissions from that sector.

However, the data also show that little progress is being made in the transportation sector.

In fact, transportation sector emissions are increasing.

 

“It is increasingly clear that there is no path to combating climate change that doesn’t adequately address carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions from transportation,” Olivieri said in a statement. “Over-reliance on single-occupant vehicle travel and a failure to prioritize non-driving modes of transportation like transit, biking and pedestrian alternatives is having a profound impact on the health of our planet and the health of our citizens.”

A study from researchers at NASA and Duke University found that 120,000 premature deaths could be prevented by 2030 with a reduction in carbon pollution from transportation.

Meanwhile, MIT has calculated that as many as 53,000 lives are lost prematurely each year as a result of overall pollution from transportation sources.

Federal policymakers are considering moving forward with key steps that could help combat the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation is currently considering new rules that may require localities to track, measure and reduce carbon pollution from transportation sources.

Pursuant to the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), U.S. DOT is required to issue a series of performance standards to provide greater accountability over our national transportation system and to ensure that local action is consistent with key national priorities.

The last of these rules, those governing air pollution and congestion, are open for public comment and U.S. DOT is expected to release the final version of the rule by the end of the year.

“U.S. DOT should be applauded for considering adding a carbon pollution performance standard to the current draft rule on air quality and congestion,” Olivieri said. “However, as the new data make clear, consideration alone is not enough. U.S. DOT must ensure that the final version of the congestion and air quality rule includes a requirement that localities track, measure, and reduce carbon pollution from transportation, as well as publicly report on their progress.”

Recent research also demonstrates that in addition to including a carbon performance standard in new federal regulations, there remain other steps that states can take to reduce carbon pollution from transportation.

A report from Frontier Group, “A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System without Carbon Pollution” showed there are a variety of tools available that could make a zero-carbon transportation system possible. Such tools include electrification of vehicles, increased use of shared-mobility services (car-sharing, bike-sharing, and ride-sharing), more and better public transportation, greater transit-oriented development, safe and walkable neighborhoods and smart pricing for roads and parking.

“While carbon pollution from transportation is a major problem, the good news is that the tools and technology we need to transition to a carbon-free transportation system already exist,” Olivieri said.  “What’s needed now is the political will at the federal, state, and local levels to take meaningful action.”

High-speed rail plans meet opposition in southeast Minnesota

Opposition is growing in rural southeastern Minnesota to proposals for a high-speed rail line connecting Minneapolis and Rochester.

Rochester civic leaders see high-speed rail as a way to draw thousands of new workers to the Mayo Clinic and other big employers in their region.

But people living along the U.S. Highway 52 corridor see problems and costs with the Zip Rail project, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. Trains on the proposed line would speed along at more than 150 mph, cutting the roughly 90-minute ride from Rochester to the Twin Cities in half.

“Our farms are important and our industry is important. And nobody once notified me and sent me a letter and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking at this plan,’” said Heather Arndt, who lives on a 35-acre farm near Goodhue.

Arndt last year joined with other neighbors to form a grass-roots group called Citizens Concerned about Rail Line, which opposes any form of high-speed rail along the corridor. The group’s members are worried about potential loss of farm and taxable land, loss of traffic that supports local business and the lack of any stops between Rochester and the Twin cities.

Rural southeastern Minnesota should not have to bear a cost for Rochester’s multi-billion dollar Destination Medical Center development plan, and the 30,000 to 40,000 workers the development plan is expected to draw over the next 20 years, Arndt contends.

“If their choice is to take a great job opportunity in Rochester but they prefer to live in the Cities, that is their personal choice,” Arndt said. “It should not be the responsibility, the problem or (to) the economic disadvantage of people who live between the two places to have to pay for that.”

Traffic on Highway 52 has grown steadily. According to a 2010 corridor study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, volume on the highway could nearly double to about 87,000 vehicles a day by 2025, up from 47,000 in 2000.

Earlier this year, officials with the state Transportation Department released eight corridor options as well as Zip Rail’s potential social, economic and environmental impacts. Now, the agency is wrapping up an environmental review of the rail line due out at the beginning of next year. MnDOT paid for the $2.3 million study mostly with state funds.

Private investors are pushing a second rail option. The North American High Speed Rail Group proposes an 84-mile elevated line to be built over Highway 52. The line would run along the median, which would be the least disruptive to the region’s farming, said Wendy Meadley, the group’s chief strategy officer.

The privately held firm based in Bloomington says it has backing from undisclosed U.S. and Chinese investors and expects to raise $4.2 billion for the project. Once it receives a permit from MnDOT early next year, the group will have 120 days to complete its pre-development study.

Milwaukee bus drivers on 3-day strike

Bus drivers and mechanics in Milwaukee began a three-day work stoppage starting early on July 1 after negotiations with transit system officials stalled over a new labor contract.

Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 stopped working at 3 a.m. on July 1 and plan to return 72 hours later, union officials said.

“We had no intention to go out on strike, we wanted to sit down and talk,” union president James Macon told a news conference.

An agreement was not reached during day-long negotiations on June 30 between the Milwaukee County Transit System and union officials despite a federal mediator being present, according to local media.

“The union’s decision means tens of thousands of people who rely on MCTS to get to work, school and doctors’ appointments will have to find other transportation,” the transit system said in a statement.

The work stoppage caused headaches for thousands of music fans attending Milwaukee’s Summerfest, one of the largest music festivals in the world. The 11-day festival draws about 900,000 people each year.

Transit officials said they proposed a four-year contract late last week that would have maintained a current 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase per year and a 1 percent raise in 2017.

The transit system also would pay more of the employees’ pension contributions, equally a 1.3 percent pay annual increase starting in 2016.

Ninety-three percent of union members voted this week against the proposed contract, that would require them to make larger monthly health care premium contributions.

The union also objects to the transit system’s plan to hire part-time drivers.

The transit system, which serves Milwaukee and some of the surrounding metro area, provides about 150,000 daily rides.

The last time Milwaukee bus workers went on strike was in 1978. That strike lasted 39 days.

In July 2014, about 5,400 workers of New York’s Long Island Rail Road threatened to walk off the job before the transit authority and unions reached an agreement.

Plan for Milwaukee-area private rail company released

For five years, a group of individuals has been quietly gathering input from Milwaukee-area residents and civic leaders to develop plans for a private passenger rail that would link key areas across Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. 

On Jan. 21, the Milwaukee Passenger Rail Company published its plans for the B-Line, which will link such destinations as the Summerfest Grounds, Marquette University, UWM, Miller Park, Wisconsin State Fair Park and Mayfair Mall.

“We think it’s about time for Milwaukee to have a system like this,” MPRC president Michael Garven toldWiG by phone. He went on to say that conservatives have nixed rail plans in the past because they’ve depended on public funding to operate, but his company’s private, for-profit plan would negate such objections.

“After the initial funding, we would operate as a private company,” Garven said. “That’s very important to us and to conservatives.”

Garven said he did not want his announcement to have any effect on the Milwaukee streetcar proposal and the timing of his release is purely coincidental. Neither he nor his company has a position on the project, he added. 

According to an MPRC press release, the project initially would require public funding to improve 58 miles of existing rail tracks in coordination with the Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific Rail companies and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Using existing rail infrastructure would save $500 million in startup costs, the press release added.

In the master plan for B-Line, which can be found at milwaukeebline.com and on Facebook under the name Milwaukee Bline, its organizers say the project would generate $1.3 billion in new economic development activity, creating more than 10,000 jobs in a 10-year period.

The plan includes use of the former Talgo facility at Century City and a site at the Milwaukee Port Authority. Passenger rail cars would be built at Avalon Rail Company in West Allis.

The B-Line would use fuel-efficient diesel-electric locomotive motors, according to the plan. Ticket prices would range between $2.85 and $8.85, depending on the distance traveled.

“This is an urban transit system for the economic-minded that will benefit Milwaukee and Waukesha County for many years to come,” said MPRC technical advisor Dave Henry in a press statement.

Company CEO Brian Kliesmet said in the statement, “MPRC planners were careful to reach all constituencies. The B-Line is an innovation that crosses all boundaries and jurisdictions and is a model for economic success.”

Garven said he planned to meet with state and local officials in the coming weeks to obtain their approval of the plan, which would require some of its start-up funding from cities reached by the train. He said prior meetings with business leaders and elected officials have been largely positive.

Right-wing bias, political jockeying conspire to derail Milwaukee’s streetcar proposal

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

***

Streetcars and light rail systems are central to America’s growing re-urbanization — the counterpunch to last century’s urban flight. Although critics often dismiss them as “trendy,” you’ll find such systems today in down-to-earth cities such as Oklahoma City, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Leaders in conservative metro areas such as Salt Lake City rave about them. They’re an integral part of 21st–century urban landscapes in nearly every corner of the nation — Portland and Seattle, Tucson and Phoenix, Atlanta and Nashville, Philadelphia and Boston.

Many of the cities that have added streetcars or light rail to their public transportation options over the past couple of decades consider them great successes. Portland, Oregon, which pioneered the streetcar’s return, reports that $3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of its streetcar lines, resulting in 10,212 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction.

Not every city can report the spectacular results of Portland’s streetcar, and some systems do have flaws that are touted by naysayers intent on finding them. But it’s accurate to say that the scores of streetcar projects that have been built over the past two decades have proven overwhelmingly popular. They’ve benefited their local economies and provided an additional mode of transportation that gets large numbers of people out of their cars and into their streets, where they can get around without dealing with parking hassles. 

Milwaukee is the most densely populated city in the nation without any rail component in its pubic transportation mix —yet.

The taste of Koch

Approval for Milwaukee’s streetcar initially seemed like a slam-dunk. The city’s major business interests are so firmly behind it that several of them took out a full-page ad supporting the project in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The ad, headlined as an “open letter to the City of Milwaukee,” read: “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to propel Milwaukee forward in a bold new direction that will positively impact the future of our great city for decades. If we don’t reinvest in our community, fewer people will locate here, existing citizens will leave, and it will leave a deep hole in the pool of resources available to take care of people.”

The highest-profile business leaders in Milwaukee, including Michael Cudahy, Greg Marcus, Barry Mandel, David Lubar, Jeffrey Jorres, Alex Molinaroli, Gary Grunau, Linda Gorens-Levey and Greg Wesley, signed the letter.

The Milwaukee Business Journal reported that Johnson Controls Inc. is taking a “keen interest” in the Milwaukee streetcar as it considers places for possible expansion. Development giant Jon Hammes said the streetcar could spur construction of an $80-million building he’s proposed for downtown.

But there’s a name that’s missing from that list, and it’s not because he’s reluctant to get involved in the state’s local issues: David Koch. His groups got involved in two school board elections last April in Kenosha, turning them into to pro-voucher boards. They also tried to derail an expansion of that city’s streetcar expansion, Christopher Naumann, executive director of Downtown Kenosha, told WiG.

As in Milwaukee, there were few objections to Kenosha’s streetcar up until the weeks before the vote, despite the fact that it had been a priority for city planners since 2012. Unlike in Milwaukee, Kenosha’s aldermen stood up to the special interests and refused to play politics with their streetcar. They voted to move forward.

Kenosha’s streetcar development will cost $10 million — $8 million of which is coming from a federal grant.

“The momentum this thing took in the last weeks and the personalities that got involved were very interesting,” Naumann said. “Things seemed to be more about politics than about the streetcar.”

“The streetcar isn’t nearly as impactful as other issues, but they were going after this as low-hanging fruit,” he added. 

In the scale of things, a $2-million expenditure on building a streetcar line in a small Wisconsin city seems small potatoes for the mighty Kochs. But it’s an issue for which Koch and his fossil-fuel cronies have a distinct distaste. Any advancement of transportation that replaces driving is bad for their business.

In fact, the involvement of Koch interests in fighting streetcars seems to counter opponents’ claims that they’re underutilized. If the tea party and its fossil-fuel backers really thought no one would use the streetcars, then why would they waste so much effort trying to prevent them from being constructed?

Local opposition

Nevertheless, two 2016 challengers to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s re-election have joined forces with Koch brothers allies to turn the streetcar project into the hot-button political issue du jour. After several delays on voting for the project, the Milwaukee Common Council approved it on Jan. 21. But in a convoluted parliamentary move, aldermen also voted to delay its final approval until Feb. 10.

The delay is designed to give Ald. Bob Donovan and Ald. Joe Davis, both of whom want to unseat Barrett in 2016, a chance to collect 31,000 signatures to compel a binding referendum that would mandate voter approval for any rail spending over $20 million. A similar attempt to halt a streetcar in Kansas City failed.

But Citizens for Responsible Government, the ad hoc group led by Donovan that’s spearheading the referendum effort, has said it will not provide the needed signatures until Feb. 9. Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski said that he’s entitled to — and needs — up to 15 days to review the petitions for accuracy.

So, even though the Common Council has approved the streetcar, it’s unclear what its members will do on Feb. 10. The fate of the streetcar remains up in the air, and the project could ultimately wind up on a court docket.

One possibility is that the referendum would apply to future rail decisions but not this one, Owczarski said.

“You can’t use direct legislation to undo something that’s already been done,” he explained.

Meanwhile Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-brothers-advocacy group, is reportedly trying to steer the city away from the project. Their efforts are benefiting from the support of right-wing radio hosts such as Charlie Sykes, who’s provided a soap box for Donovan (who has formerly run for political office as a Republican).

Why are the Koch brothers and their interests so terrified of a 2.1-mile streetcar system that they would resort to denigrating the program as catering to the rich and would feign concern over public funding for the poor?

‘Ugly wires’

The rhetoric against Milwaukee’s modest streetcar starter plan has been all but apocalyptic. The plan, which would connect downtown Milwaukee to the lower East Side and the lakefront, has been blasted as everything from a racist plot to a rape magnet to a careless waste of taxpayer dollars. (The longterm plan for the streetcar would extend it up the east side of the city and west of the Milwaukee River.)

The introductory price for a ticket would be $1.

Steve Hiniker, president of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist are infuriated that right-wing leaders have positioned the streetcar as “waste of taxpayer dollars,” while ignoring the $1-billion plan to expand I-94 through downtown Milwaukee. Traffic studies have proven the expansion is not needed, and it would be financed partially through Wisconsinites’ property taxes and federal money that Republican leaders usually make a great show of turning down. It will cause countless accidents, delays and loss of productivity but will offer no necessary benefits at a time when traffic on the corridor is declining.

The difference between the I-94 expansion and the streetcar is that road builders give millions of dollars to elected officials, but the streetcar does not offer them a comparable payday, according to Hiniker and others. 

It’s telling that Donovan wasn’t even aware of the I-94 expansion project when WiG spoke with him recently by phone.

“I haven’t looked at that issue, quite frankly,” said Donovan, who announced his mayoral candidacy for 2016 on Sykes’ radio program.

On the other hand, Donovan and Davis have looked very, very hard at the $124-million Milwaukee streetcar line. They’ve bashed the project with distortions and outright lies. 

Donovan’s complaints about the project are among the quirkiest. He said they represent “old-fashioned technology that’s going to take Milwaukee backwards.”

“It’s going to put ugly wires out in the streets,” lamented the alderman.

But the prize for most bizarre objection goes to Ald. Joe Dudzik, who called in to a live radio program to warn listeners that the streetcar would be a magnet for shootings, assaults and rape. 

Re-urbanization

The geography and sociology of the United States during the second half of the 19th century were transformed by the construction of vast interstate highway system   made possible by cheap oil and environmental blindness — and racism. From coast to coast and border to border, nature was resurfaced with thousands of miles of tar offering safe passage to white urbanites fleeing black and Latino newcomers.

The white-flight generation littered the nation with ugly, chain-store-studded strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments that crowded out the plant and animal life that occupied the continent for eons. The one-two punch of chopping down the nation’s trees and filling the air with automobile exhaust helped change the global climate.

But in time, everything old becomes new again. Unpredictable gas prices, the lost productivity resulting from ever-longer drive times to ever-farther suburbs, falling real estate prices and the sociocultural sterility of the suburbs have grown tiresome to growing numbers of their residents.

Farsighted developers revitalized cities like Milwaukee, and empty nesters began opting to live in the vibrant new urban pockets they created, such as the Third Ward, which offers close proximity to entertainment, culture, chic boutiques and gourmet dining.

Their kids, meanwhile, began gravitating to their own urban neighborhoods such as Bay View and Walker’s Point, places that offer low-cost housing, diverse social interaction and freedom from wasting so much of their lives in automobiles, inhaling toxic fumes and contributing to the planet’s demise.

“People want to be close together for social and culture and business interactions,” Norquist told WiG by phone. “The city is a cultural creative soup that creates value. Even the great conservative think tanks are in cities. Being in the middle is important. The urban environment and transit brings people together.”

Norquist, who said the streetcar is a no-brainer for Milwaukee, has witnessed up-close and personal the decades-long struggle to bring rail back to Milwaukee. He notes that automotive interests eliminated the city’s streetcars in the first place.

According to Norquist, business interests connected with Firestone and General Motors owned Milwaukee streetcar systems for a while before eliminating them and the competition they represented.

“A lot of the people who participated in this were progressive,” Norquist said. “They thought streetcars were old-fashioned.”

Norquist said the final owner of a rail system that offered direct service from downtown Milwaukee to the Chicago Loop every hour not only ended the service but “burned down all the trains and equipment because they didn’t want the cars to go anywhere else.”

The federal grant that would cover nearly half of the proposed Milwaukee streetcar project has a long and checkered history, Norquist said. 

Back in the 1970s, the federal government appropriated $500 million for transportation in Milwaukee, Norquist said. The money was frittered away by a succession of governors until there was only $125 million left, part of which was used to tear down the Park East Freeway, he said.

“By the time I left there was $95 million left,” Norquist added. That amount is now down to $54 million.

No one seems to know what will happen to the money if it’s not used for the streetcar. Like the millions that Republicans turned down to build a high-speed rail corridor and expand Medicaid in Wisconsin, it might just go to another city and state with leaders who are more interested in their citizens than their political careers.

Ald. Tony Zielinski: Milwaukee streetcar is a luxury the city can’t afford

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

***

First and foremost, I am opposed to the streetcar because a majority of my constituents are opposed. No doubt, I have some vocal supporters but they are not the majority. 

My constituents are telling me their taxes are too high. Furthermore, we are in such apparent fiscal constraints that the police are being furloughed, the fire department are experiencing brown outs and we cannot even maintain our roads adequately. The potholes in particular are especially bothersome. 

Moreover, the city has been gradually cutting the work force in general due to tougher budget challenges. The city is struggling just to maintain the integrity of the delivery of its existing services.

How is it then that we have tens of millions of dollars to start a new project? And that is just the capital side of the price tag. There is also the excessive cost of operating the system into the foreseeable future. 

Proponents say this will not affect your property taxes. The money is coming from tax incremental financing districts. They are flat-out misleading the public. TID’s forgo tax revenue to pay for projects. 

To illustrate, the cost of the streetcar project is around $124 million and we are getting $54 million from the federal government. Meaning the city has to come up with the remaining money. And as I mentioned earlier, we will have to pay the shortfall for the annual operating budget. 

Nearly all my constituents believe we need a strong mass transit system that includes buses with rubber wheels, which are a lot less expensive. But the problem with that is the county has been so strapped for money they have continually been cutting back on their services. 

Lastly, I have a number of constituents who cannot afford our continually escalating property taxes. A number of people are being taxed out of their homes. 

Milwaukee cannot move forward with reckless spending practices. Detroit was spending money all the way to bankruptcy. The streetcar did not help them. If anything, their spending on the streetcar dramatized their reckless and irresponsible spending habits. 

People say the streetcar has worked in other cities. We are not other cities, just like we are not Detroit. We are one of the 10 poorest cities in the country. Every city has a unique set of variables that determines whether it is a right fit for them or not. 

Other cities such as Arlington, Virginia, voted down their streetcar proposals because of the cost. 

In summary, I do what the majority of my constituents want. A few years ago I voted for the streetcar because I received a lot of phone calls in support. When I started my door-to-door efforts, however, I quickly found out a majority of my constituents do not support the streetcar. So afterwards I let people know I will not be supporting the streetcar. 

I understand our economy is beginning to bounce back. However, until we can provide the necessary services to provide to our citizens, our city cannot afford this luxury.

Debunking objections to the Milwaukee streetcar

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.

A streetcar named desired

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

***

Urban areas today are once again thriving engines of economic activity where Americans want to live, work and play. Large numbers of people, especially young people, don’t want to waste time and money on automobile commutes in exchange for a few more square feet of living space in isolated suburbs with strip malls and big-box stores. They prefer to live near where they work and enjoy the amenities that cities offer, including live entertainment, unique restaurants and shops, and a vibrant atmosphere.

That’s certainly the case with Milwaukee, but a key ingredient in the success of other cities is missing: Milwaukee is the most densely populated city in the country without a rail component in its transportation system.

Integrated, multi-modal transportation systems are major contributors to the phenomenal resurgence of urban centers throughout the nation — and the world. These systems utilize and connect with other modes of mass transit — trains, busses and streetcars — that are suitable for different lengths of travel and different areas of population density. For moving people around the most heavily populated areas, nothing beats streetcars.

Streetcars are coordinated to have stops along bus routes, encouraging more use of public transportation and thus less traffic congestion and pollution. Pedestrians, bus riders, train travelers, automobile drivers and bicyclists use the streetcars as a link to their final destinations. Streetcars are also useful to people who only want to park once and then go several places without having to move their cars.

Milwaukee’s proposed streetcar system eventually would cover an extensive area, but it would begin with a $124-million loop route connecting the densest residential neighborhood in the state of Wisconsin (north downtown) with the densest collection of jobs in the state of Wisconsin (east downtown); the loop would also encompass the Third Ward, the Lakefront and the Milwaukee Intermodal Station (Amtrak station). 

According to Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the department of city development, this starter route reaches 90 percent of major downtown employers and 80 percent of hotel rooms.

Research shows that streetcars are especially desirable to the kind of talented young people who are leaving Wisconsin in droves because of its shrinking educational and employment opportunities. This is one of the grayest states in the country, and it’s growing grayer all the time.

Streetcars have proven to be outstanding economic generators in other cities. They leverage an astounding amount of private sector development activity, which is why the business community supports them so strongly. A major bank or other corporate entity is more likely to develop a downtown building if there’s an easy, convenient way to get people to work without having to build massive parking structures. New shops and restaurants will develop along the streetcar stops, expanding the city’s tax base as well as its amenities.

Milwaukee has been sitting for decades on a $54-million federal grant that can only be used for rail. Mayor Tom Barrett plans to use those funds for the streetcar system and raise additional money through tax incremental districts, so businesses that stand to benefit from the project will pay most of the rest. Money raised in this way helped construct Manpower International headquarters, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Riverwalk and other projects that have proven vital to the city.

Conservative Ald. Bob Donovan, who clearly fails to grasp this key trend in urban development, is leading the charge against securing the final sources of funding. Contact your city representatives and other elected officials and urge them to quickly build and expand the proposed streetcar system. 

Milwaukee will ride it into the future.