Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
I recently returned from a week-long vacation to London. I never fail to be impressed by the efficiency and convenience of that city's rail transit system. On the way home, our connecting flight was canceled due to storms and we had to spend a day in Philadelphia. Once again, we found ourselves in a city with a great rail transit system. Then we returned to Milwaukee.
It seemed as though we entered the third world. Milwaukee has no subway system, no light rail, no streetcar system. All of the most vibrant and great American cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco have rail transport. In fact, 53 American cities have some form of intra-city rail transit. But not Milwaukee. Not us.
Milwaukee is not in the same class as our largest cities. No one would mistake us for New York or Chicago. But we aren't a burg, either. In the Milwaukee/Waukesha/Racine metro area live more than 2 million people. We are the 33rd largest metro area in the country. We have a large enough population to support light rail or a streetcar system.
And such a system is indeed finally being planned. When the first stages are complete, a 2-mile streetcar route will go from the Amtrak station, through downtown, to the lower east side. The modest route will connect downtown hotels, the Historic Third Ward, and the populous east side. Proposed extensions will give access to more of the downtown and go further north near the lake. The system could ultimately grow to cover the entire metro area.
The planned rail system will provide better transportation options in a densely developed and populous area of the city. As already shown in other mid-sized US cities, it will act as a catalyst for business and tourism growth. The $64.6 million project is being funded by a $54.9 million federal grant and $9.7 million from the city.
Holding-up progress on the plan is disagreement over who will pay an estimated $20 million to relocate utility equipment that occupies Milwaukee public right-of-ways. For most projects like road construction, such relocation is covered by the utility companies themselves. However, in an attempt to derail the project, the state GOP legislature slipped a provision into their 2013 budget requiring the city, not the utilities, to pay for any needed equipment relocation. So much for local control.
In addition to road-blocks from state politicians, the rail system has been the target of intense, coordinated, and shrill attacks by the local right-wing media cabal. Articles by such groups as Media Trackers, Bradley Foundation, Wisconsin Reporter, Americans For Prosperity, the MacIver "Institute", Right Wisconsin, WILL, and right-wing squawk radio appear regularly in an attempt to kill the rail initiative.
It is unclear why so many GOP politicians and the right wing media are against this project. I just don't get the motivation for their knee-jerk enmity to any sort of rail transport. And this GOP hatred of mass transit is not limited to Wisconsin. From Ohio to Tennessee to Florida, there has been an intense Republican effort to derail mass transit programs. Why? Here is a list of some possible motivations for the anti-transit crowd:
1. Kowtowing to big donors from fossil fuel companies. The GOP fights hard against any effort to curtail our use of fossil fuel. For example, the Koch- funded AFP has led efforts to reject energy-efficient mass transit in Nashville.
2. Aversion to any non-private entity. Many in the GOP abhor government in any way, shape, or form. They continually push to privatize public schools, prisons, roads, and even military operations. A government initiated and run transit program is anathema to such a mind-set.
3. Dislike of Milwaukee. There is clearly a self-defeating dislike of Milwaukee (and Madison) among the state's GOP leadership. Bill after bill has been introduced to negate local rule in our state's largest city. Any program which could possibly benefit Milwaukee must be opposed out of principle.
4. Fear of "urban people". Milwaukee consistently ranks as the most segregated metro area in the country. Any convenient transportation system could act to decrease that segregation. An ultimate metro-wide rail system would make it easier for people to commute to areas with better job, housing, and education opportunities.
5. The dreaded Agenda 21. The tin-foil hat wing of the GOP believes that the UN is trying to take over the US through Agenda 21, a twenty-year old treaty on sustainable development. A light-rail proposal in Tampa was scuttled due to Tea Party opposition, stirred up by such paranoid fears.
6. Sheer contrariness. The national GOP has a knee-jerk reaction against anything proposed by President Obama. There seems to be a similar cussedness from the state GOP. Since a rail transport system is supported by Mayor Tom Barrett, state Republicans must, by their very nature, oppose it.
Whatever the motivation, the rabid right-wing opposition to a rail transit system continues. Despite the naysayers, we only hope that Milwaukee's leadership continues with this important project. Our state's largest metro area needs the economic growth, improved infrastructure, travel convenience, and fuel efficiency that a rail transportation system can bring.