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Milwaukee's Streetcar Project Suffers Setback at Hands of Joint Finance


Milwaukee’s proposed streetcar project has hit a bump in the road. The Legislature’s Joint Finance committee Thursday approved a provision in the Public Service Commission’s budget, that would shift any related costs for the streetcar from utility ratepayers to the city.

The vote fell strictly along party lines, with all 12 Republicans on Joint Finance voting in favor of the measure, while all four Democrats voted against it. The city has allocated about $64 million for construction of a streetcar line from the downtown Intermodal station to Milwaukee’s east side. The Public Service Commission is considering whether utility lines would have to be moved.

Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga introduced the motion, explaining it bars utility companies from passing along to ratepayers costs associated with moving power lines for a street car project. Kooynega lives in Brookfield but his district covers part of Milwaukee’s west side.

“I represent thousands of residents in the city of Milwaukee and those residents have expressed to me that they are not in favor of this project and do not want to pay for this through higher utility rates,” Kooyenga says.

Kooyenga says it’s been estimated that moving utility lines for the Milwaukee streetcar project could cost up to $70 million, a price tag he doesn’t think is fair to pin on ratepayers in the city. Democratic state Sen. Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie voted against Kooyenga’s plan, calling it outrageous.

“What’s coming next, we’re going to tell Milwaukee how to pick up their garbage? This is big government Republicans folks, sticking their nose into local areas where local decision makers should make their decision,” Wirch says.

Another person objecting to the provision was Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee. He believes the streetcar would ultimately lead to more businesses locating to the city.

“The downtown streetcar plan has been a long time in the making. It’s been identified as something that will help attract businesses and talented people to downtown Milwaukee. It has the support of every business improvement district in downtown Milwaukee. These are very successful entities that have been in part responsible for the huge growth we’ve had in downtown Milwaukee,” Richards says.

Richards chastised Republicans on the panel, accusing them of trying to usurp the authority of the Public Service Commission. Committee Co-Chair, Republican Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills countered that the measure does not stop Milwaukee from moving ahead with the project.

“If the mayor and the city want to do this great, then pay for it. We just don’t want ratepayers to have to pay for it. Go ahead, go for it,” Darling says.

One of the biggest opponents of the streetcar at City Hall is Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan. He said in a statement Thursday the committee’s action likely means the end of the line for the project. Mayor Tom Barrett’s Chief of Staff Patrick Curley says engineers don’t believe any utility lines would even have to be moved.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.