What’s so funny about peace, love, and a ridiculously modest streetcar project?
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If you pay attention to local talk radio, the Journal Sentinel comments section, or the occasional screaming match at city hall, you know that the most controversial issue of our day is the proposed Milwaukee Streetcar project. We’re told that the $64.6 million project has divided Milwaukee households in two, with proponents hell-bent on shoving a half-baked and antiquated public transportation system down the public’s throat on one side, and no-nonsense opponents rightly crying out “Boondoggle!” on the other. But if Tuesday’s calm-and-collected “Milwaukee Streetcar: Facts And Future” presentation at the Pabst Theater Pub was any indication, that manufactured controversy is quickly fading, and is ultimately proving to be much ado about nothing.
Not that organizers didn’t prepare for an apocalyptic, “town hall”-esque shouting match. An armed police officer was on hand to keep a wary eye on the sizable crowd, and one of the project’s architects, Commissioner of Public Works Ghassan Korban, spent about as much time preemptively calling for civility than actually presenting facts. City Engineer Jeff Polenske eventually doled out those facts via a cut-and-dry Power Point slide show. The presentation was pitched as a project briefing and update, though nearly all the shockingly modest details that were discussed could already be found on the Milwaukee Streetcar website: The vehicles will be based on modern designs used in Portland and Seattle. A two-mile “starter route” will eventually expand into a 3.5-mile route. Federal funds will pay for $54.9 million, with $9.7 million coming from local sources. The project is estimated to launch during the summer of 2016. A short Q&A was just as unremarkable, highlighted only by a typically surly Michael Horne (“You’re out of commission, Horne!” someone hollered as Horne tried to squeeze in a second question), a few loaded questions from Aldermen Bob Bauman and Nick Kovac, and some wishy-washy answers from Polenske that more or less boiled down to “We’re looking into that.”
Perhaps the most interesting question of the night went similarly unanswered: Can the streetcar project still be halted, or is its completion a forgone conclusion? Polenske dodged the question like a seasoned pro, though his answer could be roughly translated as “It’s happening whether you like it or not.” That’s just as well. If anything, Tuesday’s mild-mannered presentation was a perfect illustration of the decidedly mild-mannered project it touted. The message seemed to be this: Milwaukee is getting a streetcar, and by the summer of 2016, its few remaining opponents will join the long-forgotten ranks of Miller Park, Marquette Interchange Project, and—cough, cough—indoor smoking ban critics. There are still plenty of details to be hashed out, but it’s time to move on to the next non-issue.