O’Toole’s visit to Milwaukee to advocate against the streetcar comes at a time where relations between Milwaukee and Wisconsin state leaders is reaching a caustic apex of loathing and new budget proposals adding fuel to a tinderbox of mutual animosity. In recent weeks Gov. Scott Walker introduced a new biennial budget which failed to restore $14 million in reduced transit aid from the last budget, while adding $500 million in new funding for road construction projects that critics say favor the western, affluent suburban areas in metro Milwaukee. Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett have also traded barbs in recent weeks about claims Walker and Republican leaders hate the city and new fuel has been added to the fire over Wisconsin Department of Transportation plans to widen part of I-94 on the west side of the city, which could result in the construction of a double decker freeway and critics say potentially cause some portions of a graveyard to be paved over along with decimation of the Story Hill neighborhood, which is considered one of the premier neighborhoods on the west side of the city.
City leaders are also still sore with Walker for his refusal to take nearly $1 billion in federal aid to build a high-speed rail line connecting Milwaukee, Chicago and Madison, which was returned to the federal government shortly after Walker took office in 2011.
“We do not to be the governor’s punching bag,” Ald. Nik Kovac said. “We want to be successful and one of the ways we’re going to be successful is by making this smart investment, which I should remind you, the governor has nothing to do with.”
Immediately following the press conference, Bauman and Kovac along with city engineer Jeff Polenske held their own press conference to refute the claims made by O’Toole, saying the project will be a success and derided the fact an outside influence was coming into the city and trying to undermine city projects.
“Frankly this man is a charlatan,” Bauman said. “This man is a hired gun. His job is to advance a political agenda and that political agenda is essentially anti-city and anti-urban."
Critics of the Milwaukee streetcar plan have cited the small reach of the project to say it’s not going to be successful. Baumann said city leaders have reached out to federal officials to get more money to fund extensions for the rail line, but they will not release more money until the initial phase is built.
Polenske said the project is moving forward and despite the political controversy. The system will connect with the city’s intermodal station in downtown and will be accessible to 80 percent of all parking in the area to encourage people to “park once,” when they come into the area for entertainment or work.
“I think you’re free to have your opinion as to what you’re in favor of or what you’re supportive of and what you’re not supportive of, but the fact of the matter is we do have a great project here,” he said. “We have $54 million in federal money that has been legislated specifically for a streetcar project in downtown Milwaukee and we’re on the cusp of bringing on the final designer to get into the final engineering and prepare the documents for construction.”