The Strange Streetcar Bedfellows

How two ambitious aldermen have turned a quixotic petition drive into a gamble they can’t lose.

To the casual observer,
Milwaukee Aldermen Bob Donovan and Joe Davis appear to be steaming down the same track as they attack Mayor Tom Barrett’s proposed streetcar line. Both men have announced that they’ll challenge Barrett for mayor in 2016, and both are demanding legislation that would require a binding
referendum on any rail transit projects requiring more than $20 million in city cash.

But until recently, they’ve been on a collision course. Donovan has long been aligned with conservatives who categorically oppose all new rail transit proposals. Davis, on the other hand, has advocated for a citywide light rail system far more extensive – and expensive – than Barrett’s $123.9 million, 2.5-mile streetcar line.

In 2008, the northwest side alderman sought $250 million in borrowing authority for a proposed network connecting the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, General Mitchell International Airport, the city of Wauwatosa and Milwaukee’s Midtown Center shopping complex. While Davis never estimated the total cost of this proposal, it almost certainly would have exceeded $625 million, the estimate for a 22-mile light rail network studied in the mid-1990s. (At current prices, 22 miles of light rail line would cost more than $1 billion.) Given these financial uncertainties, Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman, normally a vigorous transit supporter, convinced the Common Council to chop Davis’ $250 million proposal down to $20 million – borrowing authority that was approved but sat unused and expired at the end of 2009.

Davis has demonstrated his support for light rail in other ways. When he voted against the streetcar in 2011, he did so because Barrett’s plan didn’t go far enough, he said. He also joined in defeating Donovan’s previous campaign for an advisory referendum on the streetcar, despite championing a public vote now.

Joe Davis

So why the change in course? Bauman says that while the petition drive is unlikely to stop or even slow the streetcar plan, it could still be used as a tool to mobilize conservatives during 2016’s mayoral election. Here’s how that would work: Streetcar opponents turn in the nearly 31,000 valid signatures required by Wednesday; aldermen approve streetcar construction on Feb. 10 but wait until March’s council meeting to reject the referendum ordinance; and that rejection automatically triggers a binding referendum. Because a referendum must be arranged at least six weeks prior to an election, March action would be too late for the April 7, 2015 election, pushing the question to the same April 2016 ballot as the mayoral race.

Under such a scenario, Bauman reasons, the streetcar plan could move forward, and the referendum would only apply to future extensions. In the meantime, Donovan and Davis would gain “a nice list of 31,000 people who don’t like the mayor” for fundraising and organizing purposes.

Donovan dismisses Bauman’s claims and only says that he’s grateful for the backing he’s received in recent months, as compared to 2011’s drive, when support from Davis and others was lacking. The current effort is going well, he says, but victory will be “a tall order” given the short time frame.

Davis didn’t return calls seeking comment, although he did reaffirm his support for light rail in a March 2014 interview with the Journal Sentinel. In more recent public comments, he’s argued that a Downtown streetcar would do nothing for his district or minorities, a view disputed by other African Americans on the council.

Bob Donovan

The petition drive is being run by the CRG Network – which paved the way for Republican Scott Walker to become county executive in 2002 – with legal advice from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. WILL won a Public Service Commission ruling that forced the city, and city taxpayers, to pay more
to relocate utility lines along the route. Donovan’s previous drives have enjoyed endorsements from Americans for Prosperity and the MacIver Institute, both backers of Walker for governor.

Some observers have predicted that pro-Walker forces will support Donovan for mayor in retaliation for Barrett’s campaigns against Walker in 2010 and 2012. But if they can’t take down the mayor, obstructing his pet rail project could be their consolation prize.

Storm image by Shutterstock; streetcar image by city of Milwaukee; Davis photo by city of Milwaukee; Donovan photo by Adam Ryan Morris.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.