Barrett: Streetcar Plan Is a Bet on the City’s Future

“I’m betting on the future of this city, and I’m saying we have to invest.”

The specific investment Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was speaking of during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” event at Eckstein Hall on Tuesday is the proposed streetcar that would serve parts of downtown Milwaukee.

Barrett has been an energetic advocate for the streetcar plan, which has become a political controversy of a major order. The proposal appears to be coming to an important point (but not a final decision), with two votes scheduled for Wednesday by the Milwaukee Common Council that would create tax incremental districts in the area to be served. The districts would go far to make financing feasible. But supporters are saying that, even if the streetcar wins, there very likely will be a second round of voting in February, as well as other possible avenues of opposition to pursue.

Barrett told a full house in the Appellate Courtroom that downtown Milwaukee has seen a boom in development and that the streetcar would help continue that. He showed photos of major business projects underway and said 800 new residential units are being readied for the market. “I want that momentum to continue,” the mayor said.

Gousha asked Barrett about some of the criticisms of the project, such as that it would not benefit people who live beyond downtown or that Milwaukee has more urgent needs than a streetcar. Barrett said the project would create jobs for people who need them. He said $55 million in federal aid that has been set aside for years can be used only for the street car, and not for other city needs. If it is not used for the transit project, Milwaukee will simply lose it, Barrett said.

Barrett said those who say the city needs more firefighters or libraries or better service in other areas should support the streetcar because it will build up the city’s economic vitality and tax base in ways that will help.

Opponents are circulating petitions supporting a referendum on the transit proposal. Barrett, who is opposed to that, said there are other important issues facing city government and no one has pushed for referendum votes on those. He questioned the motives of those behind the referendum idea. He said the 2012 election for mayor, which he won by a wide margin and in which his position on the issue was well known, was a form of referendum.

The mayor said one of his aides said she can tell with one word whether callers to the office support or oppose the idea. If they refer to “trolleys,” they’re thinking that this is an idea from the 1950s and they oppose it. If they refer to “streetcars,” they’re thinking this is a 21st Century idea that would help keep Milwaukee competitive with comparable cities around the country, particularly when it comes to attracting investment and talented younger adults.

Also on Tuesday, aldermen who support and oppose the idea held press conferences at City Hall to give their sides. The opponents include two aldermen, Bob Donovan and Joe Davis, who plan to run for mayor in 2016.

The mayor said some critics are saying, “Barrett wants to get this in the ground and expand it.” He said the critics were right on that. And he predicted that once the streetcar is up and running – by 2018, he hopes – much of the talk will switch from opposition to demands for service in a broader area.

Video of the session can be viewed by clicking here.



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