Milwaukee Streetcar’s Trump Card Over Walker: A 1990s Civil Rights Case

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no friend to rail transportation. He won the governorship based on the rallying cry of “No Train,” a concise summary of his position on the planned upgrade to the Milwaukee-to-Madison line. And we all know how that one ended.

A rendering of the Milwaukee Streetcar. Photo: Light Rail Now!

When Wisconsin voters went out last week and affirmed his leadership, it prompted some concern about the future of another important rail project in the Cheese State: the Milwaukee Streetcar.

But while Walker got a chance to flex his obstructionary muscles on the president’s inter-city passenger rail plan, the Milwaukee streetcar may be outside his reach. The reason is a 1990s civil rights complaint filed by the city of Milwaukee. It makes an interesting case study in how a municipality can triumph over an anti-transit governor.

Back in the late 1990s, Scott Walker was a member of the state legislature. The “No Train” governor of the day was Tommy Thompson.

Congress had awarded $289 million for a Milwaukee transit project 10 years earlier. The region flirted with the idea of a busway between Milwaukee and suburban Waukesha, but Thompson quashed the idea, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In the late 1990s, the region’s leaders got together and came up with a plan recommending the money be split between a Milwaukee light rail system, an expansion of I-94 and expanding bus service to Waukesha County. The plan was agreed upon by local leaders and approved by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

But according to the MJS, Walker and a group of suburban Republicans convinced Thompson to issue a mandate that none of the money would be used for light rail.

In response, City Alderman Bob Bauman, an attorney, spearheaded an administrative civil rights complaint against the state through U.S. DOT. The document alleged that by eliminating transit routes while preserving funding for highways, the state’s directive was discriminatory against the many carless African Americans that live in Milwaukee.

In a court of law, any group alleging discrimination under Title VI must prove that the government action in question was deliberately discriminatory. Not so for administrative actions like this one. To win a Title VI complaint through an internal U.S. DOT complaint, the injured party need only prove that there was a “discriminatory impact.”

In 2000, U.S. DOT decided in the city’s favor.

When a government agency is found to be in non-compliance with Title VI, the federal government can withhold funding to the agency until the issue is remedied. Facing the starvation of the state’s transportation system, the governor capitulated and a deal was worked out that preserved $91 million for light rail in Milwaukee. (According to MJS, Walker argued for returning all the remaining $241 million – what was left after some work on a failed busway project — rather than spend any money on light rail.)

Over the years, portions of the funding were used to address various transportation issues in Milwaukee. Part of the money was used to tear down the Park East Freeway when John Norquist was mayor.

A total of $54 million remains. With the required 15 percent local match, that’s enough for two miles of streetcar line through the center of downtown.

The line is viewed as a starter line. ”Two miles of light rail doesn’t benefit minority communities, we readily acknowledge that now,” Alderman Bauman told Streetsblog.

Local leaders hope it will eventually be expanded to better serve commuters and the surrounding neighborhoods. ”We’re looking at this as an economic development tool,” Bauman said.

None of this is to say that Walker has plans to attack the system again. When questioned about the project last year by local reporters, Walker deferred to WisDOT and said, “There’s better things to focus on than whether or not there’s a streetcar here.” And Transportation Nation this week quoted former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist saying that a consent agreement between the city and the state that resulted from the civil rights action would make it impossible to re-purpose the streetcar funding without the consent of the mayor. That’s reassuring — but with someone like Walker in office, it’s always good to have more on your side than just faith in his good will.

FTA Administrator Pete Rogoff, confirmed continuing federal support for the project last year.