Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Federal funds back Milwaukee streetcar proposal

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Federal funds may provide the fiscal spark for a streetcar line in Milwaukee denied the city by state and county planners. Wisconsin U.S. Senators Herb Kohl and David Obey, both Democrats, inserted language in the recently passed $410 billion federal omnibus spending bill identifying $91.5 million for Milwaukee, with roughly $55 million (60%) of that targeted for launching a streetcar project.

The remaining 40% would go to Milwaukee County for upgrading its bus network; the county has been steadfast in its opposition to streetcar or light rail transit, opposition spanning almost two decades.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, himself a former congressional representative, has fought for a downtown streetcar loop, connecting downtown destinations with the Amtrak-Greyhound passenger station, and positioned as a starter system open to expansion later. Barrett argues that rail generates more economic development than buses. Opponents have questioned rail’s cost andflexibility.

Both sides note that any starter system would likely cost more than the funds allotted for the project, and funding from state or local sources has yet to be identified.