A Brief History
The current phase of streetcar construction we've all been suffering through for a little more than a year now, goes back to at least 2010 or 2011. For a period of about 4 years, the Milwaukee Common Council as well as the media, engaged in debates over the Milwaukee Streetcar Project. Then, in February 2015, Mayor Barrett signed off on a resolution passed by the Common Council, and all systems were GO. It took almost 2.5 years longer, when streetcar construction began in May of 2017.
But to fully appreciate the streetcar debate, you will have to turn back the clock to about 1991. Back then, the federal government awarded Wisconsin around $289 million dollars for the purpose of improving transportation in the southeastern part of the state. That money was to go to light rail, but for a variety of reasons that didn't happen. Instead, Milwaukee took some of this money and used it for the Marquette Interchange and the 6th Street Viaduct. Around $46 million went back to the government. Then, $91 .5 million was set aside for public transit, where it languished for about 10 years or so.
Enter Tom Barrett and friends. A plan was developed to split the $91.5 million-- 60% for the streetcar, and 40 % for the Milwaukee County Transit System. Milwaukee is now using its share, $54.9 million for the streetcar.
Despite many letters of opposition, despite a Marquette Law School poll showing low public support for this project, and despite one failed attempt in early 2015 to gather signatures to force a referendum on the streetcar issue, Mayor Barrett and his friends have been pushing this thing forward all the way.
Depending on your source, the cost of the streetcar is usually stated between $124-$128 million dollars. But the financing of this project is not real transparent. The financing of the Milwaukee Streetcar is multi-layered and somewhat complex. Mayor Barrett's first two choices for financing, is to go to the federal government or the state. The last request for $20 million to fund extension of the streetcar up 4th street was turned down by the federal government. In addition to the $54.9 million, Milwaukee received a $14.2 million TIGER grant to pay for the streetcar Lakefront Line extension. To cover the rest of the cost, the Common Council created 3 TIF's. A TIF is a Tax Incremental Funding district. The idea or theory is to borrow money at today's cost, and then repay it later with the increased tax revenues that will occur with increased development and property values in these TIF districts. Supposedly, the streetcar is going to drive all this economic development. Just for the record, by law, this TIF money can not be used for other things like the police or schools. But this still wasn't enough. Tom Barrett and company were so desperate to get their streetcar project launched, they inked a 12 year $10 million deal with the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, who will be picking up the tab for streetcar fares for the first year. In return, Potawatomi got the naming rights, calling the Milwaukee Streetcar "The Hop."
Mayor Barrett is blissfully delusional and willfully obtuse when it comes to the streetcar. He feels that when the streetcar is operational, it will win over some of the critics. Those chapters remain to be written. We hope Milwaukee historian John Gurda, has been taking lots and lots of notes.