Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Exec Scott Walker laid out their visions for the future of mass transportation in Milwaukee at today’s On the Issues with Mike Gousha program at the Law School. (A podcast is here.) The transportation issue invites vision statements in part because $91.5 million in federal funds are set aside for mass transit in Milwaukee and in part because Milwaukee’s once prized transit system is badly broken. Without an agreement between Barrett and Walker, the federal funds are unlikely to be released. But an agreement between those leaders will be hard to come by: the mayor looks to cities that are growing and thriving and sees rail service as a key component of the local transportation strategy; the county exec looks at Milwaukee’s deteriorating bus system and wants those federal funds to shore up and improve county bus transportation.
Where Barrett sees local rail service as a critical economic development tool that can invigorate the region, Walker sees inflexible routes and minimal practical benefit. Where Walker sees improved bus service as a reliable system for moving workers and students, Barrett sees a county bus system that is in a “death spiral” which cannot be fixed just with more buses.
Mike Gousha’s invitation to Barrett and Walker to compromise drew fascinating responses. Barrett said he would gladly split the money in half, so each could pursue his own vision. Walker said that plan would cost the county some state aid, so he wouldn’t agree. Walker said that he and Barrett both favored “bus rapid transit” on two particular routes, so funding those would be a compromise. Barrett noted that this is a bus-only plan and therefore is not a compromise.
The capacity of these two political leaders to hold each other and our future in check on this issue was awesome to behold. Something is wrong, as almost everyone in the region has been saying for a while. Now if we could just agree on what it is.