The Common Council will vote on the Milwaukee streetcar in January.
The Common Council will vote on the Milwaukee streetcar in January.

Cincinnati's familiar streetcar saga

As the legal slog to develop a new streetcar system in Downtown Milwaukee continues to play out in court, in City Hall and at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, proponents and opponents alike would do well to keep an eye on Cincinnati.

"More than any project in decades, the streetcar kerfuffle has fueled unending drama and controversy: a symbol of progress for proponents and of profligate spending for detractors."

That quote did not come from Milwaukee, although it would certainly apply. It came from a blog written by Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld earlier this year. Sittenfeld was referring a seven-year debate over a proposed $133 million streetcar system in downtown Cincinnati.

I’ll let Sittenfeld take the Cincinnati story from there…

"The saga began when the mayor and city council set the 3.6-mile project in motion, only to have a right-wing anti-tax group gather signatures for a ballot measure to stop the streetcar from being built.

"Voters rejected the measure; the streetcar survived. Next, then-newly elected Gov. John Kasich yanked $52 million of previously committed state funding from the project, and significantly altered the streetcar's route and viability.

"The following year found the same anti-tax group putting yet another measure on the ballot to halt the streetcar ‚Äď only to have citizens again vote, albeit by a narrow margin, for the project to go forward. The impasse continued ... and continued ... and continued. Then, in November of 2013, a new mayor was elected in a campaign centered around cancelling the streetcar."

However, at that point, construction of the streetcar system was well underway.

"The final fate of the project came to a head just before Christmas of 2013, facing a do-or-die funding deadline from the federal government. In soap opera-like fashion, only hours before the deadline, the project survived with just enough votes to overcome a mayoral veto," Sittenfeld said.

"Three Council members ‚Äď myself included ‚Äď who had long-standing skepticism about the project agreed to support completion to avoid wasting tens of millions of dollars with nothing to show; damaging our city's national image; compromising our standing with the federal government; and enduring the loss of jobs and development for a project already underway."

I recently asked Sittenfeld for an update on the Cincinnati "kerfuffle" and the lessons learned.

"Construction is ongoing, and it remains on-time and on-budget for a 2016 opening. I continue to believe that cancellation once the project had begun would have been an irresponsible waste of taxpayer dollars. Interesting, when GE just recently announced they will be adding 2,000 jobs to our downtown, they cited the streetcar as part of the reason for their location selection. We are focused on making this project a positive catalyst for the city," he said in an e-mail.

The bottom line for detractors of the Milwaukee project ... If you’re truly intent on stopping it, you best do it now before a tax incremental financing (TIF) district is created, construction begins and utility lines are moved, because by then, it will be too far down the track.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.

Talkbacks

Ill_Mill | Jan. 5, 2015 at 3:49 p.m. (report)

Finally a legitimate argument for having a streetcar. Having the city make this investment would show a permanent commitment for this route and could encourage development in this area. However, do businesses really need to see this commitment by the city? From the looks of it, this area is already seeing extensive private investment activity. Would adding a streetcar really increase the rate of this investment? Having a streetcar did not factor into any of the investments already underway. Keep in mind that for this streetcar to make sense financially the increased tax revenue from the TIF needs to pay for it. (Increased Tax Rev = Future Rev - Current Rev + Rev from Already Proposed Sites) --------------- As for having a transportation Network, I agree you need to have a mix of transportation options. However, I don't believe this 2 mile trolley car loop adds anything. If you want to make an argument for having a larger regional fixed rail transportation system I would be open to hear it, but trying to get it going with this small loop is not the way to do it. It leaves to many funding questions unanswered. To me it seems like a Trojan horse trying to tip the balance for having a larger rail system in its favor by making it seem like we would be throwing away this $120 million dollar investment if we don't expand the system. (Assuming it is built) If the city wants to diversify the transportation network, I would much rather see them invest in bicycle lanes that provide a safe and unobtrusive way to commute around the city by bike.

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fetlarpo | Dec. 24, 2014 at 12:35 p.m. (report)

At least in Cincy the citizen were allowed to vote on it. Here in Milwaukee only Barrett gets to.

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pfan | Dec. 24, 2014 at 10:38 a.m. (report)

Otto - The question about busses is often asked. So why won't they work like a streetcar? Because bus routes can disappear overnight. There is no certainty built around bus lines. Streetcars are as much about real estate development as they are about a high quality transit option. Fixed rails attract building, and business, and residents. They also attract a different transit user --- people that use transit by choice, not by necessity.

That said, too many people have pitted busses and the streetcar against each other. A great transit network is just that, a network. It is complementary, meaning walking is connected to biking, connected to busses, connected to fixed rail and beyond. It's all about getting people around in different ways, effectively connecting the dots. It is here that Milwaukee is woefully, and I mean WOEFULLY, behind peer cities... Let's hope this city can finally become a multi-modal center. You will see the city's vibrancy increase dramatically when high quality mobility options abound.

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Otto | Dec. 23, 2014 at 11:16 p.m. (report)

Why won't buses work. Really nice buses not the old run down ones like we have now, but rather nice new Euro looking units. What's the big deal about having rails???

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