This Wednesday, during a 9 a.m. meeting at Milwaukee City Hall, the Common Council will vote on what is being touted by some as the single most important project in modern Milwaukee history. The approval of this project, we’re told, will magically lift the city out of an ossified past and into a gleaming future; defeat will doom Milwaukee to decades of economic darkness and low standings on “Top 25 cities for young professionals” lists. On the other end of the argument, the project is being branded as one that’s guaranteed to fail, a ridiculous “boondoggle” that represents “big government” at its most arrogant and wasteful. Or something like that.
The project, of course, is a 2.4-mile downtown streetcar line. Again: a 2.4-mile downtown streetcar line. The future of the city, and the future of every man, woman, and child in it, depends on whether this project is approved. Or defeated. A 2.4-mile downtown streetcar line. It’ll probably expand, eventually.
Or so we’ve been told, over and over and over again. In my nearly two decades of living in Milwaukee, I’ve never encountered another issue that has received so much frothing press, or one that has divided an otherwise unflappable community into two warring and increasingly hyperbolic factions. Seriously, in the past few months alone, the streetcar debate has risen from “irate disagreement” to “Helen Hunt does crank and jumps out a second-story window” levels of hysteria.
The long and tortured history of the Milwaukee Streetcar and its many twists, turns, and near-misses has been comprehensively told elsewhere, so I won’t get into too many facts here. (If you’re looking to bone up on the drama, I’d suggest Urban Milwaukee’s admirably exhaustive coverage.) Besides, like so many political issues—and yes, this is a political issue, sadly—both sides seem to have their own sets of facts. (Streetcars spur development! No they don’t!) What I’m interested in is whether one can support this project (and I do support it) without seeing it as the magic bullet that will solve all the city’s woes, and without branding those fighting against it as Milwaukee-hating troglodytes better off living in Del Boca Vista-style Florida retirement communities. Is it possible to just kinda-sorta support this thing, maybe use it (or not) when it’s built, and just be done with it?
Okay, maybe some facts would be useful: the current proposal—which includes a downtown and lakefront line—would cost roughly $124 million. $54.9 million of that price tag would be paid for by federal money that can only be used for a streetcar. According to mayor Tom Barrett, an additional $10 million in federal funds would materialize once the project is approved. The remaining $59 million would come from new and pre-existing tax increment districts (TIDs). Yearly operating costs would be around $3.3 million. Roughly $1 million of that would be paid for by the farebox and advertising. The thing will be 2.4-miles long. It’ll probably expand, eventually. The end.
Now to the fevered promises and the end-of-the-world fantasies: Supporters of the streetcar claim that it’s absolutely vital in attracting urban-loving millenials to the city, and that it will eventually spur more than $3 billion in new development. (Recent comments from Johnson Controls Inc. appear to support the latter.) They also argue that if Milwaukee decides to kill the project, the $54.9 million in federal funds will simply go to another city. Opponents of the streetcar—spearheaded by Ald. Bob “This stall is still taken, Mr. Donovan” Donovan—claim that the federal money can be better spent another way (it can’t), that the proposed route is too small (it’ll probably expand, eventually), and that the people of Milwaukee and the surrounding Milwaukee area should have a say in the whole thing. Therefore, Donovan and his supporters have been circulating a petition that would require the project to be subjected to a binding referendum. Wednesday’s vote may determine whether or not that referendum will be placed on ballots this April.
There are plenty of other wrinkles, too. According to some folks (including the brother of Dontre Hamilton, Nate Hamilton), supporters of the streetcar are turning their backs on the black community of Milwaukee, and are happy to bow down to the downtown “elites” and shun everyone else. In return, some have claimed that those in the anti-streetcar crowd are nothing more than disposable puppets of shadowy right-wing groups and talk-radio blowhards, unaware they’re being used for political theater. Then there are claims that the streetcar will or won’t take service away from MCTS, that it will or won’t gum up downtown traffic, that it will or won’t run in the winter, and that everyone or no one will use it. It’s enough to make you wish for simpler times when we were bitching about a big blue shirt.
Like I said earlier, I support the streetcar, but I’ve grown weary of the never-ending mania surrounding it. “THIS IS THE FUTURE OF OUR CITY,” op-eds and Facebook posts have been screaming in my face for the past few weeks. “OUR CITY WILL FALL AND CRUMBLE UNLESS WE BUILD THIS THING RIGHT NOW. ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU DIFFERENT IS OLD AND EVIL AND DUMB.” I get that we have to fight fire with fire (the op-eds and Facebook posts on the other side are just as crazed), but turning this project into an “us vs. them” battle has never sat well with me. If this thing really will benefit everyone, act like it. Plus, left-leaning political issues don’t have a very good success rate in Wisconsin these days. I fear that if this issue is put to a vote, we’re going to find out there are more of “them” than there are of “us.”
On the other hand, I also resent the way the anti-streetcar contingent has been so obtuse and easily manipulated by outside groups. But in the interest of togetherness, I’m trying to look past that and figure out the root cause to this opposition. Here’s what I’ve come up with: I suspect what rankles so many people on the “STREETCAR BAD!” side of the fence is the whole “millennial” angle. I’ll admit it gets under my skin from time to time, too. This project, they’ve been told, is a $124 million gift-wrapped carrot dangled in front of a generation that needs to be coddled and indulged, a generation that demands trendy toys like the ones they have in them fancy cities, and a generation that can’t be bothered to use the goddamn bus like everyone else. These people are Milwaukee’s future; the older, non-downtown-dwelling citizens have no place in Milwaukee’s future. Perhaps if the streetcar had been continually and enthusiastically pitched to all Milwaukeeans, and not just a mythic class of happy young white people, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Just a too-little-too-late thought.
So back to my question: Is it possible to support this thing without drinking the Kool-Aid served up on either side? Is it possible to stake an emotional middle ground? I think so. Here’s my level-headed endorsement: Even if the Milwaukee Streetcar doesn’t end up being an economic and cultural Holy Grail, even if it doesn’t attract boatloads of businesses and hordes of smiling millennials, even if it doesn’t cure cancer or put a human on Mars, even if it becomes just another boring form of Milwaukee public transit…we gain nothing if we choose not to build it. It’s like that part in Ghostbusters. Asked by the mayor what will happen if the paranormal investigation and elimination team is wrong about the impending ghost apocalypse, Venkman responds with these wise words: “If I’m wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail, peacefully, quietly. We’ll enjoy it! But if I’m right, and we can stop this thing…Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.”
If the streetcar is a bust, nothing happens. We all go back to our business, peacefully, quietly. We’ll enjoy it! But if it’s not, and we can build this thing…Lenny, you will have changed the lives of millions of Milwaukeeans.