Sunday, November 4, 2012

Streetcars as Economic Development Tool in Milwaukee

The Mayor of Milwaukee wants to build a $65 million two-mile streetcar system according to this LA Times article. From the story:

Mayor Tom Barrett is the prime mover behind Milwaukee's plan to build a brand-new streetcar system. Bright, modern vehicles would traverse a two-mile route through the city's east side, downtown and historic Third Ward, a former warehouse area now popular for its shops and restaurants.
Barrett, who believes flashy streetcars can revitalize Milwaukee's city front, points to the popularity of the 10-year-old system in Portland, Ore. Today's streetcars, Barrett says, are more about attracting attention than providing transportation.
"I look at this as an economic development tool," Barrett said. "Look at Portland. That system has aided in spurring development and growth, which is what all communities are looking for now."
This attitude is the wrong way to think about transport investment. Transport investment should be about moving people and things, not indirect attempts at industrial, labor or development policy. Contrary to the Mayor's claims, there isn't any evidence that streetcars boost local economies, including in Portland. There may be some redistributive effects as certain types of firms spatially sort and other go out of business during construction, but overall the effect is pretty much zero. Milwaukee has wide roads and lots of parking. Lack of transport access isn't the main problem for economic development there.
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