Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What are you willing to give up for the Milwaukee streetcar?

I have a post on the streetcar project over at Right Wisconsin. The issue flips our common political assumptions in a number of ways.

Here is what is happening. Among other feats of financial ledgerdemain, the city wants to take $ 31,000,000 in tax revenue that is being generated by a project that is already underway - the 833 Building - and divert it to the streetcar. This money would undeniably be available if the streetcar was never built (the 833 project is already under construction) and, because of what the city proposes to do, cannot be made available for anything else.

It cannot be used for the schools.

It cannot be used to improve athletic facilities in the neighborhoods.

It cannot be used to rehabilitate inner city housing.

It cannot be used to fund community policing programs that might help to protect inner city residents while relieving tensions between the police and the minority community.

It cannot help build a new arena for the Bucks.

It cannot be spent for anything to help low income residents of Milwaukee.

It cannot be used to reduce the levy on a heavily taxed community.

Instead, it will be used to fund a transit technology that was the latest and greatest thing - in 1906. It will be used to fund a transit technology that is less energy efficient and slower than buses.

It will be used to fund a transit technology that was considered obsolete and counterproductive in the late 1940s. When the streetcar was offered for sale to Milwaukee's then-socialist government in the 1950s, the answer was no.

The justification for all of this is that it will be considered groovy by the well-heeled Millennials and empty-nested Baby Boomers that live downtown. These people don't actually need it, but they will like it. My colleagues and I joke that we will be able to ride the streetcar (which will stop close to our office on Burns Square) to the Milwaukee Club to meet with conservative donors at taxpayer expense. But, in reality, we won't. It will be quicker to walk.

Writing at Vox, left wing writer Matthew Yglesias calls the DC streetcar project the "worst transit project" in America and the case for a streetcar in densely populated DC is much stronger than it is here. This project is, at best, a naked exercise in redistribution from the less well off to the well heeled. In fact, it's boondoggle that will benefit nobody, If it's such a good idea - if it is more important than all of the things that I just mentioned - then why not let the people vote on it?

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.


sean s. said...


Contrary to your claim, the economic value of light rail (and mass-transit in general) seems generally to be favorable; and the projects numerous. Even Texas, a Red-State bastion, is building one. It is true that the money spent on light-rail could be used in other ways, but that is true of any policy choice, including decisions to cut taxes instead of funding public projects.

Perhaps the DC project is poorly planned. Maybe Walker should not have given away the light-rail money like he did. But one thing is for sure: Milwaukee will stagnate without some kind of light-rail infrastructure. The City needs something like this, and it has to start somewhere. A poor start is better than nothing.

sean s.

Rick Esenberg said...


My post is about this streetcar, not light rail in general. I don't understand why a "poor start" - in this case a project that simply doesn't deliver - is better than nothing. That strikes me as magical thinking.

If you think that light rail along a dedicated and exclusive corridor is a good idea, then propose it. But a streetcar is just a bad idea. Expanding it would only make it worse.