A potential yearlong environmental review for a proposed streetcar system in Milwaukee would further devalue the federal grant the city wants to use for construction.
Milwaukee officials are trying to avoid that scenario.
“Every year we wait, the value of that money diminishes because of inflation,” said Alderman Robert Bauman. “So every year we wait, the less you can build.”
Congress in March 2009 set aside $54.9 million for a new downtown Milwaukee streetcar, but inflation constantly chips away at the amount of construction work the grant can cover, Bauman said. The $54.9 million approved by Congress does not include an adjustment for inflation.
Bauman said uncertainty among federal officials over the types and extent of environmental studies the city must perform threatens to delay the project.
The federal grant has lost $791,700 of buying power to inflation since March 2009, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index inflation calculator.
The city has been analyzing alternative routes for the streetcar system for the past year but has not selected which route to build. The task force overseeing the project planning will meet Thursday to consider the next steps for the streetcar, Milwaukee City Engineer Jeff Polenske said.
If the city advances a plan, the Federal Transit Administration, before releasing the $54.9 million, will require the city study the project’s environmental and social effects. Different federal grant programs require different studies, and some take longer and cost more money.
Federal officials have not decided how extensive studies should be because Congress approved the construction money, Bauman said. The FTA does not have rules dictating what studies are needed in this case, he said.
Officials from the FTA did not respond to inquiries before deadline.
An environmental impact statement, the most extensive study review, could take months or a year longer than the less extensive environmental assessments, Polenske said.
“Obviously, we have had some challenges in the past on direction in terms of how to move the project forward,” he said, “just because this is a unique pot of money.”
Bauman supports spending $24,000 to hire consultant and lobbyist Jeffrey Boothe, a partner in Holland & Knight, Washington, D.C., to eliminate any hurdles in the FTA review process, and the Common Council backed that plan with an 8-6 vote Tuesday.
Boothe’s job will be to get the FTA to decide which type of study is needed and to ensure the administration requires the cheapest and quickest environmental review study.
Bauman said the consultant also will try to get federal approval for the city to use design/build to hire a contractor to design and construct the system, a process Bauman said could be cheaper and faster than competitively bidding the job after design.
Polenske said city staff members will study whether design/build will yield benefits for the project.
Bauman said although the Milwaukee Common Council has yet to even vote on building the project, delays only will water down the options. Beyond the slow loss of buying power, he said, the clock is ticking to get streetcars to serve the downtown Milwaukee Intermodal Station by 2013.
“The goal here is,” Bauman said, “If we’re going to build something, we want it up and running by the time the high-speed rail is up and running.”