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The Tricky Politics of Introducing a Streetcar to a City

9:13 AM PDT on September 28, 2012

Adding a new streetcar in a city with less-than-fantastic transit, or in a red or purple state, is not for the faint of heart. Nobody in the country has fought harder for their streetcar than Cincinnati, prevailing over assaults by local, state and federal actors.

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But Milwaukee could be a close second. As far back as the 1990s, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson tried to halt millions in transit spending for Milwaukee. But a successful civil rights suit by City Councilman Bob Bauman managed to save the money, which is now being channeled toward a short, downtown streetcar route. As a result of that action, current Governor Scott "No Train" Walker cannot impede the project.

Just because hurdles like funding and planning have been cleared, however, doesn't mean politics can't interfere. According to Dave Reid at Network blog Urban Milwaukee, streetcar opponents have interjected themselves into the utility relocation phase:

Call it the mystery of the Public Service Commission. The state commission, which regulates public utilities, seemed to have a consensus with at least two of its three members arguing that Milwaukee’s streetcar project will serve the public good. This would mean utilities like We Energies and American Transmission Co. would have to pay the reasonable costs of relocating utility connections, rather than the city. But after taking a ten minute break in its meeting today, the commission’s members came back and decided they would delay any decision until the next meeting.

At issue was Brett Healy’s petition for a declaratory ruling to determine the allocation of utility relocation costs. Healy, a streetcar opponent, has argued that the utilities’ rate payers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for costs caused by the creation of a streetcar line. For members of the PSC, the question was whether the project meets the legal definition of a “police power” -- meaning it serves the common good, or whether it is a “proprietary act” by the city which doesn’t serve the public welfare, in which case the utilities would not be responsible for any relocation costs.

“We have two votes for a police power exercise,” stated Commissioner Eric Callistoreferring to his vote and that of Commission Chairman Phil Montgomery. Both were prepared to rule that the construction of the streetcar project was a legitimate use of the police power of the City of Milwaukee. To buttress his conclusion, Montgomery quoted from Wisconsin State Statute 85.063: ”The legislature finds that development of urban rail transit systems to serve urban areas of this state will enhance the welfare of all of the citizens of this state through conservation of fuel, enhancement of the development of alternative transportation modes and improvement of air quality.” Callisto was just as emphatic: “to me, issue [police power vs proprietary] is not a close call,” he said. Callisto added that despite Healy’s claim to the contrary, many more states treat transit projects as a use of police power than as a proprietary action.

Reid said commissioners claim that delaying the vote does not mean they have changed their positions. We'll see about that.

Interestingly, something similar played out recently in Cincinnati. This is the type of thing that would never occur around a typical highway. But stay strong, Cincinnati and Milwaukee; presumably it will get easier the next time around.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Twin City Sidewalks says south Minneapolis is in store for an interchange it doesn't need. Green City Blue Lake reports that the New York Times story on Louisville's highway widening felt familiar for Clevelanders, who've had their share of disappointing highway widening and highway removal sagas. And The Green Miles explains that the Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity is telling Virginia Republicans to get in line, after they had the audacity to go off script and support wind energy.

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