Darling "choo-choo" is coming 'round the bend, despite GOP mischief

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Artist conception: Milwaukee streetcar

Republicans just can't help themselves. They love meddling in Milwaukee's affairs. That's why they:

* Take away the city's residency rule for its public employees (but take them away for all local governments in the state to mask the party's real focus for the state's largest city).

* Take away money from public schools in the city, then complain when they only perform slightly better than the private voucher schools that have received tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

* Swipe tens of millions of dollars intended to help the city deal with thousands of boarded up residential homes, whose owners were thrown out thanks to the Great Recession's mortgage meltdown.

* Seize most power from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and invest it in a strongman county executive who will answer to almost no one. What could possibly go wrong?

* And now, of course, the city's streetcar project. The project that is all that's left of what was once a bipartisan effort to improve mass transit in southeastern Wisconsin, including commuter rail, high-speed intercity rail, light rail and more. Milwaukee managed to hang on to about $55 million in federal mass transit aid to construct a modern downtown electric streetcar loop. Milwaukee, if you didn't notice,  is the last major city in the nation without some kind of local rail transit.

And if Republican legislators have their way, it'll stay that way.

Now that Milwaukee is on the verge of approving final plans and scheduling construction, the Republican majority in the state legislature is prepared to interfere once again, this time passing a law aimed expressly at the one city that has suffered more under their control than all others combined.

The first thing you need to know is that the Milwaukee streetcar project uses not a dime of state tax dollars, instead bringing tens of millions of development dollars in from the federal government.

The GOP is making its case instead on this previously non-controversial matter: The GOP says the streetcar project should not be able to charge power utilities and communications companies for moving their underground cables when city streets along the route need to be reconfigured. Never mind that other cities and local governments across the state regularly make street repairs and improvements that require utilities to move their equipment, which after all is only in the public right of way at the sufferance of local governments.

All those projects in other places will be allowed to continue without state government interference. Only the Milwaukee project will be forced to reimburse cash-rich, private, for-profit utility companies like AT&T and Wisconsin Energy Corp. for any relocation costs that arise. But if something goes wrong with their proposed state law that only applies to Milwaukee (a regular occurrence, these days), Republicans also have also petitioned the state Public Service Commission -- run by Scott Walker appointees -- to rule likewise. Just to be sure things go the GOP way, dontcha know.

Of course, the naked reason why Republicans want to force Milwaukee to spend this extra money isn't because it will burden utility companies or their stockholders or customers, but because the Republican Party hopes that burdening the city financially will kill the streetcar altogether.

The Republican hatred for mass transit in recent years is a head-scratcher. Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, conservative as he was, liked passenger rail and worked hard with Democrats to get federal aid for it after years of patient toil. But the new breed of Republicans have been busy blowing up all that hard work. When Milwaukee and the state got some of the prized mass transit funds, Scott Walker -- first as Milwaukee County executive and now as governor -- did everything in his power to turn down such funding or otherwise kill such projects. Why?

Arguably, it's envy, jealously and political gamesmanship. Republicans no longer like passenger mass transit because, in their minds, trains and buses and streetcars simply aren't needed. In their wrongheaded view, everyone can afford a car to drive around on all the bumpy streets the state refuses to pay to maintain. But that's just a thin veneer covering a more important reason for GOP opposition.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, made it clear this isn't about public policy, but instead about punishing the city by denigrating its well-thought-out and hard-fought campaign to build the streetcar:

"There's no way in heck that the ratepayers should pay for a choo-choo that only goes two miles."

Of course, Darling and others pretend the city never had plans for rail loops that were much longer. The city's two-mile loop is all that remains after years of GOP and Walker efforts to undermine and trim rail transit. Now it seems to them like the project might finally be small enough "to drown in a bathtub," as Grover Norquist once famously said of government in general. But every thoughtful study shows that even the vastly scaled-down streetcar project remains quite vital and viable, which is why Darling's insipid "choo-choo" comment is a complete insult to Milwaukee residents.

Is Darling at all vocally concerned about thousands of miles of urban and rural streets and roads that require utility relocations whenever they are rebuilt? Nope, her ire is exclusively aimed at Milwaukee. Would she ever demand, for instance, that the City of Waukesha subsidize private utility costs the next time it choose to reconfigure its own streets? Doubtful, because Waukesha is part of a "red" county. Besides, complaining about Milwaukee is red meat to the GOP's wingnut base.

Then there's the other ludicrous aspect of Darling's outburst: Modern electric rail transit doesn't "choo-choo" at all. Its engines make almost no noise and no smoke whatsoever. The streetcar will carry numerous passengers through the city's densely packed downtown with energy efficiency and very low emissions.

So, nope, no "choo-choo." It's Darling and her GOP colleagues who are making all the strange noises in Wisconsin public policy making these days.

For his part in this little kabuki theater of a political fight, Walker has said the city should divert the federal grant instead to "job creation" efforts. That's amusing, coming from a governor who has taken this state straight to the bottom in job creation, compared to all but a handful of other states. Moreover, Walker knows that the federal grant can only be spent on mass transit. He also knows -- or should know -- that the project will create jobs and boost Milwaukee's downtown economy, just like the $900 million federal grant for intercity high-speed rail would have boosted jobs and economic development in much of southern Wisconsin -- before he single-handedly killed that long-sought deal.

He and other Republicans, in short, know that the streetcar, once built, will succeed, just as similar proujects have succeed in many other cities. But they can't allow Milwaukee or its Democratic mayor to succeed, because that up-ends their insistent meme that they're the only ones who know how to improve the state's sagging economy.

The national GOP is to President Obama as the Wisconsin GOP is to Milwaukee: Republicans try to deny both the president and the city any wins, lest the Republican's simplistic memes crumble.

The good news is that Milwaukee city government has been working hard to save its streetcar project. The latest GOP attempt to undermine the city's home rule and its efforts toward improvement may yet fail.

What's really disgusting, though, is how some of Milwaukee's leading business leaders have in this fight remained silent or taken the GOP position, when they surely know better. Like the Beatles sang it, these cynical business leaders are turning out to be the eggmen, waiting in their corporation T-shirts for the van to come. "Choo-choo"? No. Rather: Goo goo g' joob.