Grant conditions were satisfied by streetcar’s Sunday-only route through construction site
Milwaukee city officials are going to run their streetcars, part of the $128 million Hop, through a closed construction site on Sundays, and Sundays only, throughout the winter in order to satisfy the requirements of a federal grant.
If ridership on the new one-day-a-week “L-Line” are similar to Sunday numbers on the Hop’s single existing line, there will be few riders most of the time.
“A requirement of the grant is to begin service by 10/31/2023 on the L-Line,” wrote Tiffany Shepherd, a marketing and communications officer for the Department of Public Works in an email to the Badger Institute. “We could have requested an extension, but choose to use this an opportunity to provide access as soon as possible, even though it’s only one day a week. By operating on Sundays, we are providing the opportunity for the operations staff to become more acquainted with the new L-Line and how it interacts with the M-Line and become ready for the busy summer of 2024. This will also allow the public to become familiar with the L-Line, as this will be the first time they will be seeing and interacting with the streetcar on Michigan St. and Clybourn St.”
Daily service, they have said, is scheduled to begin on the “L-Line” next spring.
A different spokesperson, Brian Rothgery, had previously told the Badger Institute in August that he doubted that the opening of the long-planned extension might somehow be tied to federal grant requirements but did not know for sure. He also later ignored questions from the Badger Institute about the issue — though an internal email indicates he did at least think about answering.
“As far as a response, I’m sure we can provide a well-founded reason for easing into full-time operations,” wrote Rothgery in an Aug. 23 email to another staffer that the Badger Institute obtained through an open records request. “I would also provide a recent Urban Milwaukee that shows stead (sic) growth in ridership.”
Those numbers — which generally show growth over the last few years but ridership levels that are still lower than they were before the pandemic — are here.
“Or,” wrote Rothgery to his colleagues, “we could not respond at all.”
They did not back then respond at all.
In the internal email copied to a number of Department of Public Works employees, including Commissioner Jerrel Kruschke, Rothgery wrote that the Badger Institute has “an ongoing ‘boondoggle’ narrative that they are trying to maintain.”
That’s only partially true.
We’ve actually called it “a slow-motion boondoggle,” a “classic boondoggle,” a “flop” and a “financial anvil” — though we borrowed those last words from an alderman concerned about the need for local money to supplement the federal grants. Oh, we also quoted Milwaukeeans who called it “the biggest waste of tax dollars I’ve ever seen,” “a tiny project with astronomical cost,” and “a nuisance.”
Rothgery shared some of our stories with his colleagues:
- May 11, 2023: Legislature protects Milwaukeeans from $15-per-rider fare-free trolley folly
- Nov. 19, 2020: The Hop: Federal monies create a ‘financial anvil’ for Milwaukee
- April 24, 2019: The Hop’s influence is a flop: Claims that the streetcar swayed major development decisions in downtown Milwaukee are off track
But he missed our video: Taxpayers Taken for a Ride.
And he failed to share the entire chapter we wrote on The Hop and other streetcars (“Loss of Street Smarts” on page 39) in our book, Federal Grant$tanding.
This issue is about a lot more than the streetcar.
As we pointed out in the book, it’s unclear just why federal grants should be used to fund a hyperlocal streetcar at all. When federal money is involved, local officials often make odd decisions because they are not really accountable for the spending.
Decisions made because of federal funding, moreover, can easily lead to other poor or even absurd decisions down the road.
The “L-Line” itself, which will run to the construction site where developer Rick Barrett is putting up a residential tower called The Couture along Milwaukee’s lakefront, is a good example.
The Couture is being built on the former site of what was widely acknowledged to have been a colossal, federally funded white elephant — the Downtown Transit Center on Michigan Avenue near the lakefront — that was hardly ever used and was eventually torn down.
“Everyone who was involved with it knew it would never work as a downtown transit center,” Kenneth Yunker, former executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, told the Badger Institute. “It was a transit center in name only. It was a bus-marshaling center the FTA was willing to fund but only if it included a waiting room.”
The transit center sat empty for a quarter-century until the county agreed to sell it to Barrett for $500,000. Only there was a catch. Because it was developed using federal money, the deal needed the approval of the Federal Transit Administration.
The FTA did approve the sale, but only on the condition the site be used for “another (transportation) capital project” — the streetcar. The only way to avoid paying the federal government back, in other words, was extending the streetcar to the site.
Now, a different federal grant used to fund the “L-Line” is behind the odd decision to start running that line on Sundays in the cold through an unopened construction site.
Federal spending and deficits have skyrocketed and no one seems to be able to stop the trends.
One tiny way: Tell the federal government we have too much respect for ourselves to waste money running a streetcar through an empty construction site in the middle of the winter on Sundays.
And then see what happens.
Mike Nichols is the President of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
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