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Common Council Approves Streetcar For Downtown Milwaukee

Milwaukee Streetcar

Milwaukee is moving ahead with a downtown streetcar. 

The battle spanned years, but on Tuesday, the Common Council approved plans to build a loop. It would run through downtown and into the Third Ward.

The vote was 9-6 in favor of using property taxes from businesses along the route to help pay for the project. The rest would come from the federal government.

It took Milwaukee’s Common Council only 20 minutes to debate and take a final vote on the streetcar.

No supporters spoke, only opponents. Ald. Bob Donovan says he fears the construction will tie up downtown traffic for years.

“We’re going to tear up the streets. We’re going to have to lay rail. It will be a fixed route that you can’t deviate from even in an emergency. We’re going to have to hang ugly wires down our streets. I don’t see that as new, exciting technology, cutting edge,” Donovan says.

Credit Marti Mikkelson
Supporters of the streetcar held up signs during Tuesday's Common Council meeting.

About a half dozen influential business leaders disagree. Before the vote, they urged city leaders to approve the streetcar, calling it crucial to move the city forward. Council supporters of the initiative spoke after the vote. Ald. Bob Bauman called the council’s action a victory, but wishes it had approved the streetcar years ago.

“I’m elated that we’ve finally made a commitment to start somewhere,” Bauman says.

Bauman expects construction to proceed rapidly, with shovels turning by the end of the year.

“The Commissioner of Public Works is free to use the funds available to place an order for streetcar vehicles and as soon as final design on the initial two miles is complete, I would expect groundbreaking to occur very quickly and We Energies especially will begin relocating utility lines which is part of the project,” Bauman says.

Another person happy with the outcome is Dan Bukiewicz. He’s president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council. Bukiewicz says the streetcar project will employ a range of workers.

“In the construction field, everything from iron work to concrete to operators to electricians to plumbers to fitters. Every craft will be touched by this,” Bukiewicz says.

About the only streetcar opponent watching Tuesday’s vote was Orville Seymer of the group, Citizens for Responsible Government. He’s been circulating petitions, calling for a binding referendum to halt the project. Seymer says Mayor Tom Barrett is ignoring the wishes of many, when it comes to a $120 million dollar project.

“Seven out of ten, eight out of ten are saying, no we don’t want this. He’s saying, we don’t want to hear from you. We don’t want to hear your voice. We don’t want to hear what you have to say. We know better than you. That’s what the mayor is saying,” Seymer says.

Seymer says opponents of the streetcar have gathered about half of the 31,000 signatures needed to put the item on the ballot next year. He says, if groundbreaking begins before voters have the chance to weigh in, his group may sue.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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