How much does Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz want a city streetcar system? So much that he's willing to use local funds, not federal money, to build it.
"It's just easier to build a system without federal dollars," he says, noting that to get federal funds "you've got to get in line, and we're in the back of the line. The other thing is you're jumping through hoops to get it."
Cieslewicz says the city could use a combination of tax-incremental financing, room tax and other local funds to pay for a streetcar system, which could cost tens of millions of dollars. By using local funds, the city could avoid federal restrictions, like a "Buy American" clause that requires the purchase of streetcars made in the U.S.
"You have more choices for the system you want to build," says Cieslewicz. "And the advantage of using local money is you can do it a lot quicker."
In fact, other cities including Portland, Ore., Little Rock, Ark., and Tacoma, Wash., have built streetcar systems without federal funds. "That's a smart way to do it," says David Trowbridge, project manager of Transport 2020.
Meanwhile, Transport 2020 has been working since 1998 on a commuter rail system for Dane County. This winter, the group hopes to submit its application for federal funding for half of the system's estimated $200 million cost. If approved, it will likely take at least five years before the first trains are running.
Cieslewicz says several downtown TIF districts could generate enough money for streetcars. "The University Square [district] is projected to be very productive," he says. And the Capitol Gateway district, along East Washington Avenue, already has a line item in its budget for streetcars, although the district is not generating any revenue yet. "It's the first time ever we've mentioned streetcars in a TIF plan," says Cieslewicz.
The mayor adds that the city could borrow more money for TIF projects. "It's likely to be a mix of cash on hand and borrowing," he says. "It would depend on the exact TIF district involved."
Any decisions are still at least a year away. Charlie Hales, who worked on Portland's system, is currently drafting a streetcar study for Madison, which will be ready next spring.
"I would emphasize we're a long way from deciding how we're going to pay for it," says Cieslewicz. "We're a long way from knowing what it will cost." But he thinks the public will support a streetcar system, no matter how it's paid for.
"The hardest part to build is phase one," he says. "But once people see it and use it, they like it. Then the question is, when are you going to build it in my neighborhood?"
Blame the state
One reason Madison may need to use local funds for streetcars is the dearth of state funding for mass transit.
"The highway programs get tons of money," says Ward Lyles of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. He notes that the state spends about $500 million a year on highway expansion projects alone. A planned reconstruction of 270 miles of highway in southeast Wisconsin is estimated to cost $6 billion. "People don't bat an eye to spend $6 billion on roads," he says.
But the state only budgets about $100 million a year for mass transit.
"This has not been a Legislature that's terribly supportive of transit in general," says Lyles. "Local governments have had to take the lead on this."
Lobbying money goes local
The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is crowing about the unprecedented amount of money it spent to defeat a proposed sick leave ordinance.
Last week, the Chamber put out a press release noting that it put "its money where its mouth is" by spending $44,758 on lobbying in the first six months of 2006. This includes $30,000 for radio ads that featured small business owners complaining about city mandates. (In contrast, the group spent just $23,862 on lobbying in all of 2004, when it unsuccessfully fought a city plan to hike the local minimum wage.)
"I never heard our small business members as concerned about an issue as they were about sick leave," says Chamber president Jennifer Alexander. "That led to our decision to focus our resources on defeating the ordinance."
But Ald. Brenda Konkel worries that lobbying is getting out of hand. "Up until this point, local politics was the place where the average citizen had an equal chance with special interests," she says. "Now money is playing a bigger role in what happens."
According to the state Ethics Board, the average interest group spends $43,100 annually to lobby the Legislature and governor ' about what the Chamber spent in just six months to lobby city officials. And the Chamber was not even Madison's top spender. Joseph Freed & Associates, which is lobbying the city on its redevelopment of the Hilldale Shopping Center, burned though nearly $95,000 during the first six months of 2006.
"What concerns me is that the decisions are all happening behind the scenes," says Konkel. "At what point does public discussion of an issue become moot, because the decisions are being made elsewhere?"
Alexander says the Chamber would "rather not" have to spend so much on lobbying, but "if there are mandates that our members believe will hurt their business, we'll be at the ready."
The Collaboration Council, made up of 55 elected officials and local business leaders, has raised more than $1 million this summer to create a new economic development entity. The not-for-profit group, expected to launch in October or November, would promote economic growth in the region.
"This is an opportunity to get our community on the same page about our economic future," says Rick Phelps, senior vice president at M&I Bank and chair of the Collaboration Council's fund-raising committee.
About 30 companies, including MGE, Meriter and American Family Insurance, have donated money to the cause. Phelps hopes to raise about $3 million, which would cover most of the group's operating budget for the next three years. Public funding from Dane County would make up about 10% of the group's annual budget.
"I want the collaboration effort to start strong," says Phelps. "I would really hope that the private sector would help out, as a matter of civic responsibility. We're all in this together."
At least once during every city council meeting, a microphone in Room 201 of the City-County Building will short out, causing Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to make a lame joke about how Dane County owns the building. Now, for the first time in 50 years, the room, which houses city council and County Board meetings, is getting a makeover.
Ald. Austin King, Madison Common Council president, calls the room "a mess."
Both the city and county will pay for improvements, like adding electrical outlets to desks so officials can use laptop computers. There's also talk of updating the sound system (please!), revamping seating for the general public, and making the dais ' where the mayor or County Board chair sits ' accessible to people with disabilities.
Although the county owns the majority of the building, King says Madison will help pay for remodeling because several city committees and a municipal court use the space. There's no cost estimate yet, but King jokes, "I doubt we'll end up with gold-plated microphones."