There have been repeated public reports that the Joint Finance Committee has approved a provision in the budget that would "block" the Milwaukee Streetcar Project. These reports are inaccurate.
The legislation would not prevent the City of Milwaukee from building a streetcar or using federal funds for a street car or for any other local transit project. All it would do was prevent Milwaukee - or any other city - from forcing utilities to relocate embedded infrastructure without compensation.
Here's why that matters. To build the street car line, WE Energies and a variety of telecommunication utilities will have to relocate utility facilities - cables, pipes, etc. - that are buried in the street along the proposed use. Exactly now much this will cost is unknown, but it could be as much as - if not more than - the projected cause to build the streetcar itself.
The City of Milwaukee has budgeted nothing for these costs. It proposes to force the utilities to move these facilities at their own expense and, presumably, pass that cost on to ratepayers. In other words, people in places like Waukesha and Racine will wind up paying for much of the cost of a street car loop in downtown Milwaukee.
Current law provides that this may occur only if the Public Service Commission finds that imposing such costs on utilities is reasonable. This is the issue that I and my colleagues at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty have raised before the PSC on behalf of Brett Healy and 34 other WE Energy rate payers. (We were subsequently joined in raising the question by a number of the potentially affected utility.)
The issue is complex, but one of the arguments that we have advanced is that the imposition of these costs is unreasonable because the street car is "proprietary" in nature, i.e., it not an exercise of the police power to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public but an attempt to engage in an economic enterprise intended to confer a local economic benefit. This distinguishes it from things like road expansions and other projects for which utilities can be made to relocate facilities at their own expense.
In these circumstances, we have argued, the City ought to pay for what it wants. If the street car is the wonderful project that it is claimed to be, then the City of Milwaukee ought to pay for it.
The proposed legislation simply requires that they so say. It only provides that shifting these costs to rate payers who have had no say in whether the project ought to be built and who, for the most part, could not benefit from it is unreasonable as a matter of law.
If it passes, the City remains free to build it's street car. It must simply pay for the utility relocations. If the legislation does "kill" the street car, City residents don't want to do pay for it.
Purple Wisconsin blogger Jim Rowen suggests that the legislation would violate a 12 year old agreement resolving litigation over an earlier Environmental Impact Statement regarding local transit obligations.
No way. That agreement does not commit the state to any particular project nor does it require that the local funding of any approved project be arranged in any particular way. It is expressly subject to state law and does not - and could not - require that state law be configured in any particular way. It's a desperate argument. It won't work.
Our petition to the PSC was not about the merits of the street car project. But, I have to say, that the justification for the project is astonishingly weak. A street car is a technology that was found to be outmoded and undesirable almost seventy years when fewer people had cars and the population was not as dispersed as it is today. The operating costs of street car per both vehicle and passenger mile are much higher than buses. They are able to move less people than buses. They use more energy per passenger mile. They are notoriously slow and cause traffic congestion. They are, in most applications (there are a few exceptions not applicable here) a notoriously bad idea that would seem to require a theocratic devotion to anything that runs on rails to support.
If the City doesn't want to spend its own money on this, I won't be surprised. But, if that is what happens, it will the good sense of Milwaukee taxpayers and not this legislation that "killed" the streetcar.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.