"Milwaukee Downtown" backs streetcar project, Donovan again calls for referendum

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A group representing downtown Milwaukee businesses is taking sides in the streetcar debate. "Milwaukee Downtown" on Monday, December 8th announced it supports the proposed streetcar project. Meanwhile, one of the proposed project's loudest critics says everyone in the city should have a say.

"We`re selling this city to developers. We`re selling this city to employers. If we`re gonna build a city of the future, sometimes you have to make bold decisions and sometimes you have to make bold investments and you know what? The return is gonna be there for us on the streetcar," Beth Weirick with Milwaukee Downtown BID #21 said.

Weirick says Milwaukee Downtown's board voted last week to back the streetcar proposal.

Mayor Barrett's latest proposal says the streetcar would cost more than $120 million, and would involve laying more than four miles of track between downtown, the lakefront and the East Side.

Perhaps the loudest critic of the plan is Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan.

"I do know I had breakfast with about 10 other business owners earlier this week - downtown business executives who are very much opposed to the streetcar," Alderman Donovan said.

Donovan, who is running for mayor in 2016, says if city tax dollars will help pay for the project, there should be a referendum.

"I`m simply saying why not give everyone the opportunity to have a voice -- because ultimately, we will all be stuck paying for this," Alderman Donovan said.

Milwaukee Downtown says its businesses would contribute many of those tax dollars, and they believe the streetcar would help to attract more employers and residents.

"We`re not talking about a clank-clank trolley. This modern, beautiful, high-technology streetcar is just going to be the first leg of what will come to fruition to serve other nearby neighborhoods of downtown Milwaukee and beyond," Weirick said.

A spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office says the earliest Mayor Barrett would be available to comment on this is Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Public Works is set to present an update on the project at City Hall.

Milwaukee Downtown BID #21 issued this statement Monday, December 8th:

Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21’s board of directors has voted to support Mayor Barrett’s current $123.9 million streetcar plan. The motion to endorse the initiative was approved at the December 4th board of directors meeting.

“Given the availability of significant federal funding and the potential for economic development in the central business district, Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21 supports Mayor Barrett’s streetcar plan, including funding the streetcar with tax incremental financing,” said Joe Ullrich, chair of Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21. “The Milwaukee Streetcar aligns with the goals of our organization’s strategic plan and is consistent with Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21’s prior support of regional public transit.”

Since 2005, over $2.6 billion has been invested in completed private and public projects in and around the central business district, spurring a dramatic turnaround that has re-established downtown as a vibrant center of activity. In addition, $980+ million is currently being invested in projects under construction, and another $1.2+ billion awaits in proposed projects – indicating a trajectory of growth for downtown Milwaukee.

Other indicators such as downtown’s 80,000 employees, 25,000 residents and 5.5 million visitors annually, also substantiate downtown Milwaukee’s ability to support fixed transit. According to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau, Milwaukee ranks 14th as the most densely populated city in the U.S. Among the top 25 most densely populated cities, Milwaukee is one of only three communities in which fixed transit currently does not exist or is not already under construction.

“The Milwaukee Streetcar is a game changer for downtown,” said Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21. “We look forward to seeing this catalytic project come to fruition and know the success of the starter system will prompt expansions to near-downtown neighborhoods and beyond for the benefit of our city and region.”

As demonstrated by cities with fixed transit, Mayor Barrett’s 2.5-mile system, which includes new connections to the Lakefront and Couture, would spur investment near and along the route, attract and retain businesses and talent, appeal to millennials who are less likely to own cars, and further establish Milwaukee as a world-class city that can compete globally.

“Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21 recognizes that a modern streetcar system is one major component of an overall comprehensive and well-connected transportation system,” said Matt Dorner, economic development director of Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21. “The Milwaukee Streetcar will build upon downtown’s momentum and further increase our attractiveness from an investment perspective and more competitively position the city as a place to live, work, play and do business.”

Alderman Bob Donovan issued this statement Monday, December 8th:

I’ve learned that the mayor is making a desperate attempt to thwart a referendum on the streetcar project by having the Redevelopment Authority issue bonds to pay for the construction costs. The move is meant to sneak around the state statute provision that allows for a referendum on the borrowing for the project.

I say shame, shame, shame on you mayor!

This desperate attempt to deny the people of Milwaukee the opportunity to have their voices heard on the streetcar shows just how out of touch and scared the mayor has become on this issue. I would ask him what he’s so afraid of – but now I’m starting to wonder if he’s losing the few marbles I thought he still had left!

I am now exploring possible legal options to stop this Hail Mary end-around, and keep in mind that using general obligation bonds is the usual way to pay for large public works projects. Also, having the Redevelopment Authority issue bonds for the streetcar project is not only wrong, it could end up being more expensive for the taxpayers of Milwaukee in the long run.

But the mayor doesn’t care.

But there are many, many others who do care – including state legislators. In fact, I am hearing more and more from state leaders that the mayor’s double down and continued hard push on the downtown streetcar is getting to the point of jeopardizing state help for a new arena. This sneaky borrowing move will likely not help matters, Mr. Mayor.

Legislators out-state are asking why the mayor is pushing full-throttle on this boondoggle trolley. Specifically, they are wary of helping the city with the arena project because they are taken aback by the mayor’s desperation, and his insistence on pushing ahead on a project that is wasteful and makes no sense.

They are wondering aloud whether the mayor has misplaced priorities, and quite frankly, I wholeheartedly agree!

The mayor’s continued abandonment of common sense could, in the long run, hurt Milwaukee. Perhaps even worse, his self-induced, all-in coupling to the streetcar project could already be spoiling opportunities for partnerships that could help move our city forward.

Alderman Joe Davis Sr., who is also opposed to the streetcar project issued this statement:

As the Common Council debates the new revised funding of the Mayor’s Streetcar Project, I continue to object to the project based on the area of greatest needs here in the City of Milwaukee. We are witnessing growth in the suburban communities while we are struggling to attract business into our city that would spur long term job growth. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Marc Levine said the comparison, in part, reflects the general stagnation of the central Milwaukee economy, with the job base in the county — and especially in the city — having eroded for two decades. Data has shown that the highest ridership of the current transit system is emanating from the north side and northwest side of the City of Milwaukee.

READ IT: MCTS Average Daily Ridership for Selected Portion of Milwaukee County

Marquette University economics Professor Abdur Chowdhury also noted that the divergence in job creation between Milwaukee County and the metropolitan area’s three suburban counties is a long-standing trend. And with those counties poorly connected to Milwaukee by mass transit, relatively few African Americans have secured employment in the part of the metropolitan area generating most of the job growth, he said in an email. “This racial-spatial mismatch, a result of Milwaukee’s hyper-segregation, is a central economic challenge facing the region,” Chowdhury said.

So why are we pursuing the current Streetcar system without taking into account these vital economic statistics? How can we justify the approval of a system that does not address existing economic conditions in the areas of greatest needs with the highest negative economic indicators that gives the City of Milwaukee a persistent negative image?

And, how can a Mayor who said after hearing the familiar statistics of the City of Milwaukee being No. 1 in residential segregation, No. 1 in black poverty, No. 1 in the racial gap in student test scores, and No. 1 in the incarceration rate of African American males (I quote): “I am embarrassed to be the Mayor of this city when I see some of these horrific figures.” How in the world can our Mayor continue to move forward with a project that will be for the haves, once again leaving the have-nots behind?

CLICK HERE to learn more about the streetcar project.