STREETCARS: When slow transit can be better than fast, and when the whole is greater than the parts | WisCommunity

STREETCARS: When slow transit can be better than fast, and when the whole is greater than the parts

Wisconsin Republicans at the state level continue to fight tooth and nail against mass transit in general, but especially against urban mass transit. And regarding  urban mass transit, they've got what seems an especially irksome bug up their noses over the City of Milwaukee's project to build a modern, downtown streetcar line for which it already has secured federal funding. The city's federal mass transit grant was enough to build the entire system -- until nosy GOP lawmakers from elsewhere decided that the project is simply unacceptable, just like high-speed, intercity passenger rail was anathema before this, and just as intercity commuter rail was before that, and light rail even before that, and thoughtful regional planning before even that.

And so GOP lawmakers en masse not long ago passed a law, and got Scott Walker's minions on the state Public Service Commission to issue a complementary ruling. The effect of both is to force MIlwaukee city government to reimburse local utilities for the cost of moving any service lines they've laid in the public rights of way beneath the planned streetcar route. But the underlying intent of those moves is to kill the streetcar project altogether, the way Walker killed high-speed intercity rail nearly four years ago.

Rail transit and even to some extent mass transit in general are, in the current GOP mindset, unacceptable. Never mind the rush in many other cities and states to boost their mass transit systems and economic development in tandem. Republicans love the private road-building and utility industries in this state, and especially the plentiful campaign donations that flow from those industries. In fact, for Republicans, tearing down residential neighborhoods to build wider freeways and more roads seems totally okay, and the homeowners -- unlike utilities -- aren't awarded what amounts to veto power over freeway expansion.

You can read all about the GOP's policy-irrational but politically self-serving arguments at one of my earlier posts on the subject (see URL below for an example). The Milwaukee streetcar project is not yet dead, but has been delayed by the GOP's cost-shifting ploy while the city scrambles to make accord with the utilities or find more funding. It all amounts to another case of privatizing profits while socializing costs.

[By the way: We weren't being redundant in referring to "URBAN mass transit." While we're focusing in this post on yet another urban transit fight involving Milwaukee, numerous other Wisconsin cities, even relatively small ones, have some form or another of local mass transit -- including bus systems, public shuttle services and, in the case of Kenosha, electric streetcars. Furthermore, as costs of owning and operating a car -- and paying for road construction and upkeep -- continues to skyrocket, it's a safe bet that many Americans, like the millenial-generation subset, will demand more transit options, even in or perhaps especially in smaller cities, and across rural regions.]

Really, the vociferous GOP arguments against mass transit, which first appeared even before the end of the pro-rail Tommy Thompson era, are based on numerous false arguments and oddly reasoned, factually unsupported rhetoric. One attack on the Milwaukee project is that streetcars are, in the minds of conservatives, obsolete because they will interfere with other kinds of traffic (mainly private automobiles) along their rail path. Another common shibboleth is that streetcars will reduce property values and, in a business-centric area like downtown Milwaukee, also will depress economic development.

We already know the latter argument is phony. Otherwise, places like Portland, Oregon (which is in many respects a city quite simiilar to Milwaukee) would not have experienced billion-dollar economic development along its streetcar lines and light-rail routes. And now comes a think tank which demonstrates why, it might even be a good thing if streetcars might at times slow down traffic a bit on some streets. Better yet, and quite to the contrary of Scott Walker's arguments when he was Milwaukee County executive, streetcars and conventional rubber-tire buses may enhance one another.

So says BeyondDDC, a web-based organization that focuses on mass transit and urbanism in the greater Washington, D.C. area. But its studies and reports don't just reflect mass transit issues in that population-dense and mass-transit happy region. See the group's report, link below, and read its analysis of why what at times might be slower mass transit can be a boon to neighborhoods and communities. Key points:

  1. Streetcars have greater capacity than buses.
  2. Streetcars can be more affordable than buses over the long term.
  3. Streetcar tracks reassure riders they’re on the right route.
  4. Streetcars stand out.
  5. Streetcars are more comfortable to ride than buses.
  6. Streetcars are economic development magnets.
  7. Streetcars are quieter and cleaner than buses.
  8. Streetcars are sometimes faster than buses.
  9. Streetcars attract more riders than buses.

As always, common sense isn't always right, and the benefits of complex systems can be counterintuitive. See all the details in the BeyondDDC article linked below.


August 4, 2014 - 1:43pm