Mayor Barrett and County Exec Walker on the Future of Mass Transit in Milwaukee

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.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Paco Nava

    I agree that something is need of repair in the vast, ineffecient Milwaukee transit system I wonder, however, why this issue doesn’t receive more attention from the general public. With soaring gas prices and the threat of even higher prices in the years to come, why aren’t we thrashing the issue of public transit to investigate every possible opportunity for improvement? The day must come–indeed, it will come–when riding public transit will be not only a custom of the car-less, but a necessity for financial stability.

  2. Steve CMare

    County Executive Walker seemed truly inflexible in his approach to the transit system. After the discussion, I am still not exactly sure why the executive has such a hardline opposition to light rail. I think the most telling moment of the entire event was when, after Mr. Walker touted the importance of the state study being done on the issue, Mike Gousha asked him what he would do if the study said that light rail was the answer. Mr. Walker’s response was “I’d say it was wrong.” It drew laughter from the crowd, but it underlined the fact that Walker really doesn’t care what happens, so long as light rail doesn’t happen.

  3. Vince Heine

    Light rail would be great, provided it is cost-effective and done correctly. The trolley car system in San Francisco used to be more developed than it is now, running very efficiently and picking people up every 7-11 minutes (if my memory is correct); of course then Alfred P. Sloan Jr., CEO of GM, bought them up and destroyed them, claiming the trollies weren’t running on time, etc. Then lo and behold, one of America’s first special interest/lobbying groups came about, the something-something highway group (memory not serving me well now), and it pushed for more roads to help sell more cars. Historical overview aside, why was Walker so opposed? Who does he work for? I wan’t there, but light rail seems like a great asset (again, if done properly) to the city. In fact, light rail could transform Milwaukee to the more modern city it could be.

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