Dave Cieslewicz has taken quite a drubbing over his proposal to bring streetcars back to Madison. The response from citizens at an advance planning session last month was mainly cool. Letters to the editor are running heavily against. And Cieslewicz's rivals for his job as Madison mayor are having a field day.
'The trolley initiative comes from the mayor's vision,' Peter MuÃoz has told The Capital Times. 'It is not based on any public outcry that we need that form of public transportation.' He continued: 'I take issue with the mayor's strong vision. I especially object to trying to ram it down people's throats.' Yikes.
Ray Allen has cited estimates that streetcar tracks will cost between $15 million and $25 million per mile. 'I see this as a waste,' he's told Isthmus. 'To put this in perspective, the cost of one mile of trolley tracks is enough to make affordable housing a reality in Madison, or enough to pay for the replacement of all the wells that have elevated manganese levels.'
Cieslewicz tells Isthmus the early reaction has been 'a little more negative than I had hoped.' While 'I didn't expect it to be a cakewalk,' he resents being bashed for advancing bold ideas: 'It is important for a mayor to have vision, to put proposals on the line.'
And he finds it ironic to be accused of ramming his plan down people's throats when he named a committee and held last month's meeting expressly to allow for public input early on, before key decisions are made.
'We've trying to develop the idea in as inclusive a way as possible,' he says, adding that there will be other opportunities for input after the committee presents 'a full-blown proposal' in late spring or early summer.
Cieslewicz thinks streetcars are worth considering for several reasons. They attract riders who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus ' and they do not, he avers, 'cannibalize the bus system,' as some have charged. They promote redevelopment along their routes. And they constitute an 'amenity' that makes cities more attractive.
'It has to do with the look and feel and function of a city. There's a coolness about them. Streetcars add to the experience of a city.' Whereas a bus going by on State Street is a drag, 'putting fumes in your pasta,' a streetcar is clean and quiet and...cool.
That's one theory. Another is that even suggesting streetcars is a clear sign of unfitness for office.
'I can see how this is going in the next 90 days,' sighs Cieslewicz. 'I know how they're going to play it: You can't drink your water 'cause the mayor is playing with his electric train....'
The power of suggestion
Last spring Carol Schuch, an employee with the Madison Health Department, had a suggestion for Mayor Dave: How about a suggestion box, for citizens and employees? She sent the mayor an e-mail to this effect.
Last summer, relates Schuch, the mayor e-mailed back: 'He thought I had a good idea.' The next day she stopped by his office to look for the box. There wasn't any. 'I went back the next day and the next day and the next day, and there was no suggestion box.'
After a couple of weeks, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Schuch got a box, cut a hole in the top and covered it with a grocery bag colored red, white and blue, so the mayor 'wouldn't have to look in a book and pay $400 or $500 for it. I'm a saving-money kind of girl.'
Schuch delivered the box and some red, white and blue scraps of paper on which suggestions could be written. Again, she waited. No box. After a while, she went to the mayor's office and announced that if her box wasn't going to be used, she wanted it back. Now there really was no box: 'They looked all over and couldn't find it.'
The box was lost but the idea not abandoned. Earlier this month, about the time that Schuch retired, the city posted an online suggestion box on an internal Web site called EmployeeNet. Mayoral aide George Twigg credits Schuch for sparking this initiative.
Schuch is pleased, but wishes there was an actual box that citizens as well as city workers could use. Twigg doesn't see the need: 'We get suggestions all the time, through e-mails, phone calls, letters. We get an avalanche of suggestions and criticisms.'
The city also has a 'Report a Problem' link on its home page (under Resident Info). Says Twigg, 'There's no shortage of ways for people to give us their ideas.'
The free flow of ideas
In the first several days after the city launched its online employee suggestion box on Jan. 8, about a half-dozen ideas rolled in.
One person suggested putting up Purell hand sanitizers to 'cut down the transmission of germs.' Another asked for 'a small gym and shower for employees to work out over lunch breaks and before and after work.' There were suggestions for bus service and ready access to city information like population and miles of streets.
A suggestion that there be some way to recycle foam 'peanuts' and similar materials that come with city-bought packages was forwarded to city recycling czar George Dreckmann. He sums up his response: 'No. There's not that much of it, and I don't have time to coordinate this.'
Finally, one person objected to the prominence of the new suggestion box on EmployeeNet: 'Can you make the suggestion box smaller?'
Getting serious about energy conservation
Speaking of suggestions, the Downtown Isthmus Group of Madison's nonofficial 'Peak Oil Task Force' has come up with a few for how Madison officials ought to respond to the coming energy crisis. These are contained in a recent report to Mayor Cieslewicz, County Executive Kathleen Falk, and a few others. Among the recommendations:
Ban new buildings taller than 60 feet, as 'ongoing blackouts will disable all elevators' and make living or working above the fifth floor 'problematic.'
Require that all new multifamily housing be built without parking and adopt co-housing principles.
Plant fruit trees throughout the city 'to provide extra calories in the event of a serious breakdown in transport.'
Establish counseling and advice services 'to help people make the financial and emotional transition to a low-carbon lifestyle.'
Penalize gas hogs 'by photo enforcement and officer tickets. Driving a private auto will become problematic' ' there's that word again ' 'with fines and prohibitions.'
Ban sales on private autos on the public airwaves. 'A campaign will be waged to get folks out of their cars and into buses, taxis and vans.'
'Forget about finding a place to park.'
Madison resident Jan Sweet, a Madison activist and architect ('I haven't put anything up lately') who heads the Downtown Isthmus Group, insists there's nothing tongue-in-cheek about any of these suggestions. (Click HERE for the whole list).
'The situation is so dire and so precarious that we're moving forward with these recommendations,' says Sweet, who gave up his car 'some time ago' and now devotes himself full-time to this cause. He thinks a fuel crisis could happen in the near future, especially if the U.S. goes to war with Iran.
While describing these recommendations as 'a trial balloon' (anyone hear a loud pop?), Sweet notes that some, like penalties for gas hogs, are already in place elsewhere. 'I would call our approach rather traditional,' he says. 'We've got to change the way we do business.'
Mayoral aide Twigg says Cieslewicz 'strongly supports sustainability efforts' but has not yet reviewed the report. Twigg, based on his own review, says this: 'While the mayor shares the concern about the Peak Oil situation, some of the ideas presented in the report are problematic.'