Tuesday, June 04, 2013

It's not about WE Energies

One of the things that I have advocated for Purple Wisconsin is that the bloggers engage each other. Quite frankly, the initial group of participants – particularly those on the left – had no interest in that. One, at least (who no longer participates) seemed actively hostile to the idea.
So I’m happy that Alex Runner wants to respond to an earlier post that I wrote on the Milwaukee Streetcar Project. I am always happy to hear from him.
But, unfortunately, he completely misses the point of my post or of the proceedings that I and my colleagues at WILL have brought before the Public Service Commission.
He thinks that I am concerned about WE Energies and don’t understand what a “sweet deal” it has.
Actually, with all due respect, I am not concerned about WE Energies at all.  Those folks are more than able to watch out for themselves.
Oh, and I do appreciate the nature of a regulated utility (you don’t have to “work in city government” to learn that) although I’m not sure Alex does. Because WE Energies is a monopoly, it has certain privileges and advantages that a different kind of business would not have. But it is also subject to certain types of regulation that a different kind of business would not be - including price controls.
So I fully understand that they will probably be able to pass the cost of utility relocations on to ratepayers.
That’s precisely the problem.
Although you wouldn’t know this from reading Alex’ post, the matter that WILL brought before the PSC was not brought on behalf of WE Energies, but  on behalf of the ratepayers who do not want to contribute to the cost of the streetcar. Because they have no place else to go and the utility will, in all likelihood,  be able to pass the cost on to them, ratepayers have the right to challenge municipal ordinances and actions that would impose unreasonable costs on them.
In other words, Alex has it exactly backwards. The reason that there is PSC oversight and we invoked it is not to augment the privileges of a regulated utility but to protect ratepayers from the consequences of those privileges - in this case, the ability to pass on municipally imposed costs that the rate payers have no ability to avoid by, say, going and getting their electricity elsewhere.  
It is certainly true that utilities can be forced to absorb the cost of relocation occasioned by certain public works. The question before the PSC is whether the street car project is the type of project that rate payers can be forced to absorb. Asking the PSC to decide this is not an intervention in “the free market.” There is no “market” involved.  
I am also concerned about good government. WILL has no position on the street car, but I, as a citizen, do. Here it is.
The Milwaukee Streetcar project takes a technology that was abandoned over sixty years ago and proposes to return to it notwithstanding that demographic and economic changes have made it even less feasible that it was in, say, 1948. Streetcars are less efficient and use more energy than just about any other alternative. They clog traffic resulting in both economic losses and environmental harm. This one promises to be among the worst because the route does not connect two points between which a large number of people wish to travel but was chosen to lay the foundation for a larger system that has absolutely no chance of ever being built. (Of course, Milwaukee used to have city-wide streetcar system that was torn out because it clogged traffic and its ridership went into the tank. Now that the city has fewer people and more of them have cars, I’m sure it will do much better.)
Put simply, if the city had to pay for the street car, it would never be built.  I know that. Mayor Barrett knows it and, I think, Alex Runner knows it. A project like this can only happen because of a separation between who makes the decision and who pays the bill.
Alex suggests that we ought to value “local control,” “local government” and “ local taxpayers.” I agree. But you don’t get local autonomy unless you have local responsibility.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

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