WI: Donovan Calls for Referendum on Downtown Streetcar Line

July 19--Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan called Monday for a referendum on a proposed modern streetcar line downtown.

At a City Hall news conference, Donovan said too many questions had been raised about the $64.6 million project for the Common Council to proceed with a scheduled vote Tuesday to authorize final engineering and construction of the 2.1-mile line. He cited concerns about the cost of moving utility lines and the route's proximity to lakefront attractions, as well as Comptroller W. Martin "Wally" Morics' advice to slow down approval.

The streetcar plan, advocated by Mayor Tom Barrett, appears to command majority support on the 15-member council, based on the number of aldermen who have either co-sponsored the measure or have voted for it in committee. But Donovan, who represents a south side district, said he had heard only opposition from his constituents.

If the council approves the referendum Tuesday, it would be an advisory vote on the Feb. 12 primary ballot, when voters also will narrow the field of candidates for mayor, aldermen and other city and county offices.

Barrett responded in a written statement, saying all the questions that had been raised could be addressed in the final engineering process. He said the streetcar would spur economic development and boost the city's property tax base.

Ald. Nik Kovac, a streetcar supporter, blasted Donovan's plan as a way for "the forces of reaction" to delay and possibly kill the project. Kovac, who represents the east side and Riverwest, said he had received some 150 emails of support for the project in the last two weeks alone.

Kovac said no referendums had been held on projects involving far more public money than the streetcar's funding of $54.9 million in long-idle federal aid and $9.7 million in tax-incremental financing. He cited the reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange, the Zoo Interchange and the north-south stretch of I-94, which together represent "billions of dollars and no referendum."

Donovan said he couldn't think of a similar referendum on a major project, but added, "If our job is not to represent our citizens and their desires, I don't know what our job is. ... Let the people decide."

Also on Monday, Milwaukee County Supervisor Mark Borkowski called on County Executive Chris Abele to persuade Mayor Tom Barrett to lobby Congress to shift the streetcar funding to the embattled Milwaukee County Transit System. Borkowski noted that the bus system is facing a $7 million cut in state aid, while he said the streetcar plan was "a gross waste of tax dollars and does nothing but hurt transit in the long run."

What Borkowski is asking would require both Barrett and Congress to reverse their 2009 positions on $91.5 million in federal transit aid, the last remnant of $289 million first appropriated for a Milwaukee-area transit project.

At that point, Barrett and Gov. Scott Walker, then county executive, had been deadlocked for two years on whether to use all the money for express buses, as Walker wanted, or use some of it for the streetcar, as Barrett wanted. Barrett persuaded his fellow Democrats, who then controlled Congress, to hand $54.9 million to the city for the streetcar and $46.6 million to the county to buy buses.

The County Board has rejected Walker's express bus plan and the county share remains unspent.

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