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Koch Money Seeps Into Milwaukee to Oppose Streetcar

Back in September we wrote about the various ways the Koch brothers are using their money to upend local transit projects. Four months later, Koch money is intensifying the assault against two more transit lines.

The proposed Milwaukee streetcar would be a two-mile starter route that could expand in future phases. Image: The Milwaukee Streetcar

Right now in the DC region, opponents of the Purple Line are trotting out Koch-funded "expert" Randall O'Toole, whom the press still consider to be a legitimate authority on transportation issues despite his completely cartoonish ideas.

And Bruce Murphy at Urban Milwaukee says it's happening in Wisconsin's largest city as well. As the city prepares to build a streetcar system, an opposition group has sprung up that is not what it claims to be, Murphy writes:

For weeks, organizers of the petition drive calling for a referendum on the streetcar have emphasized the grass-roots nature of the effort. After all, as Chris Kliesmet of the CRG Network, which is organizing the petition drive, put it: “the sentiment in the city is wildly against” the streetcar.

Kliesmet laughed off the idea that the effort was getting any funding from conservative groups outside the city. They’ve received “no funding” nor was any on the horizon, he assured me. Republican PR operative Craig Peterson, also involved in the petition drive, said he had paid personally for anti-streetcar radio ads and not one dollar of support (“No. None at all”) was coming to the group from elsewhere.

But in answer to my email inquiry, David Fladeboe, state director of the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, told me his group is quite involved in the effort: “We have been educating the public on the why the streetcar is wrong for Milwaukee since the mayor started on this project. Now we are working on pushing the referendum to allow the people of Milwaukee to decide the fate of the streetcar.”

When I pressed for more detail, Fladeboe said, “Our field teams are working with several coalition partners to gather the required signatures to have a referendum in Milwaukee. We have both paid staff and volunteers working on this project.”

How many paid staff, how much money is being spent? I asked. Fladeboe did not respond.

There has been a lot of misinformation about the streetcar floating around the city. Two aldermen have been arguing, falsely, that if the the project was killed, the money could be used for other things like road repairs and schools. The $55 million in federal money must be dedicated to Milwaukee transit as a result of a federal Civil Rights decision against the administration of former Governor Tommy Thompson, which tried to block local transit investment in the 1990s. The Federal Transit Administration has already released the funds as a grant for the Milwaukee Streetcar, and says the money cannot be repurposed, reports Politifact.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network: Transportation for America responds to last night's State of the Union address. The Dallas Morning News' Transportation Blog reports that in Dallas, and elsewhere, people of color are more likely to be stopped for bicycling infractions. And NextSTL's Richard Bose explains why he sorta likes the state of Missouri's bare-bones transportation plan, released as an apparent scare tactic after voters rejected a major sales tax increase.

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