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Letter to the editor: Streetcar money will be used for its intended purpose

Last Friday’s headline story, “Hopping on an alternative? Bus system might qualify for Milwaukee streetcar money,” suggests erroneously that the $54.9 million in federal funding earmarked for the Milwaukee Streetcar project could be used instead on a regional Bus Rapid Transit system.

Last week, the Public Policy Forum published its insightful report, “Picking Up the Pace,” which contends that the metro area might consider improved and rapid bus transit service, as a complement, not alternative, to the Milwaukee streetcar. Regardless of the fact that debating BRT and streetcar systems is much like comparing apples to tangerines, it is important that we do not confuse the issue of how these federal funds may now be used.

While it may have been true in the past that these federal dollars could have been used on transit projects other than the streetcar, the debate, at least on how this particular funding can be used, truly ended on Feb 10, when the Common Council approved, and Mayor Tom Barrett signed into law, the $123.9 million, 2.5-mile streetcar starter system.

Arguments and petitions against future extensions of the streetcar could be made, but the initial phase no longer has any legal roadblocks. The project is in its final engineering stage and vehicles will be acquired later this year. Realistically, this can no longer be challenged or changed, nor should we be trying to create an unneeded distraction by suggesting that one transit system ought to be competing with another that serves a completely different purpose.

A BRT, or ideally light rail, could and should coexist very effectively with our new streetcar system as a regional and suburban connector. This was precisely the spirit and intent of the study done by the Public Policy Forum, and not to distort the issue by suggesting that the federal funds used for the streetcar ought to be used for something else.

As has been clearly outlined in a letter from Congressional Representative Gwen Moore to Mayor Barrett and included in official city streetcar publications, “The U.S. Congress, in the Federal Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, designated $54.9 million specifically for construction of Milwaukee’s streetcar … ‘‘The Federal Transit Administration made it crystal clear a few years ago that these funds must be used for the streetcar project. Any attempt to change the purpose for these funds would require federal legislation, a prospect that would face daunting obstacles, including earmark bands in the House and Senate and new fiscal and political realities here in Washington, D.C.’”

Even if the out-of-state funded anti-streetcar group attempts again to gather signatures for a referendum proposal that has failed once already, this would only potentially affect future project proposals, and not the approved route that will use the $54.9 million grant. The city attorney’s office has researched this issue and concluded that a referendum couldn’t undo an action already taken by the Common Council.

In short, the U.S Congress and the Federal Transit Administration have signed legislation authorizing the use these funds for the Milwaukee streetcar. The city of Milwaukee has now also signed legislation authorizing the use of these funds for the Milwaukee streetcar. Therefore, the $54.9 million in question shall be used to fund the Milwaukee Streetcar’s starter line.

To anyone who still feels unsettled, consider this: The FTA will now look more favorably on Milwaukee, since we have finally moved forward with using these long-idle funds on the streetcar. As a benefit to local transit of all varieties, it is likely that future potential transit proposals, including bus or fixed rail in the Milwaukee area, will be much more likely to receive federal funding now that the streetcar will be coming online.

Let us now put the streetcar debate to rest, and look instead to find the best ways to improve area transit alternatives with the streetcar as a critical linchpin of a broader transportation network, including better busses and fixed rail as well as improved infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians.

— Nicholas La Joie
Marquette University

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