Making Tracks for Justice The Fight for Fair Transportation and Economic Development in Milwaukee

by John Anner

“What this fight is really about,” James Morris says suddenly, in the middle of a discussion about transportation policy in Milwaukee, “is a city-versus-suburb thing. What the central city needs and what the suburbs want are two different things.”

Morris is the lead organizer for the Central City Transit Task Force, an organizing project attempting to improve public transportation by building a light-rail system (“light-rail” refers to trolley cars that run on tracks on city streets) for residents of low-income areas of the city. They argue that because a majority of the poor and unemployed in Milwaukee’s central city lack cars, they need public transportation to get to where the jobs are. And in the Milwaukee region, most of the new job growth is in the suburbs.

Looking at the issue from the shady streets of suburbia, the problem seems a bit different. Milwaukee’s suburban commuters mostly want to get downtown as quickly as possible. And they don’t necessarily want residents of the central city — which is 90 percent African-American — showing up in their town looking for work. “Light-rail brings in strangers who are not only a threat to your property, but to your children,” announced George Watts, a prominent businessman, at a public hearing in late 1996.

“Race underlies the aversion to light-rail,” says activist Mileka Aljuwani. “The folks in the suburbs think we might go out there and steal their cars, rob their homes, or even worse, want to move there.” Aljuwani works with the African American Chamber of Commerce and the Ujamaa Project, an economic development cooperative, as well as with the Central City Transit Task Force. Although Aljuwani is not, as she puts it, “totally for light-rail,” she does believe that most central city residents favor expanded public transportation, and the polls support her. Recent surveys show a clear majority of Milwaukee residents favoring light-rail.

Just Part of the Picture

The problem is, Milwaukee is just part of the transportation picture. According to federal guidelines for the use of interstate transportation funds, local counties have to come up with a compromise agreement among themselves before the feds will cut loose with the money, which in this case will total nearly $500 million. The guidelines also require public input, something the Task Force says has been hard to deliver since the public meetings have been infrequent and poorly advertised by the state DOT.

Milwaukee County — thanks in part to the organizing work of the Central City Transit Task Force and its allies — wants to use part of the money for a light-rail system. Surprisingly, during an April 1997 board meeting, county supervisors in suburban Waukesha County agreed (by passing a resolution “accepting” light-rail) that a mix of highway improvements and light-rail was the best overall use of the federal money. But before the ink was dry on the “preliminary engineering plan” approved by the supervisors, Waukesha County executive Dan Finley vetoed it, saying that a light-rail system was out of the question.

Back to the Drawing Board

The Central City Transit Task Force had worked long and hard to get county supervisors in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties to agree to add light-rail to the mix of new transportation projects for the region. The group’s strategy was based on mobilizing community support in Milwaukee’s central city to bring political pressure to bear on county supervisors. And since federal regulations require public presentation and discussion of any proposals that involve the use of federal money, supervisors had a compelling reason to listen to what Task Force members had to say.

When asked how the organizing strategy of the Central City Transit Task Force is going to change now that Waukesha County has refused to go along with light-rail, Bill Dempsey, the director of the Campaign for a Sustainable Milwaukee, which sponsors the Central City Transit Task Force, notes that although the Task Force might have lost momentum, it still has a strong position.

“The process [of deciding on a transportation plan] requires public input,” he explains, “and we are the only group that really has a base of people that we can turn out for public hearings.” Because of the requirement that a compromise agreement be reached between the counties, as long as the Task Force can keep light-rail in the package, Waukesha County will be forced to keep negotiating. That gives organizers time to bring additional pressure to bear. In the long run, Dempsey insists, “This issue is winnable.”

It didn’t always seem that way. According to Task Force organizers, longtime Milwaukee activists warned the group to stay away from the transportation issue. “Nobody’s interested in it,” they were told. “There are no good handles. You can’t win. It takes too long.”

But Sustainable Milwaukee’s approach is slightly different from those of traditional organizing projects in Milwaukee. Rather than building community power through a series of incremental wins, the group simultaneously runs a number of different projects that combine economic development and organizing. Sustainable Milwaukee currently maintains a “workers center” that links job seekers and contractors; is running a campaign for a city-wide “livable wage”; and is fighting to ensure that low-income workers from communities of color are given a fair chance at jobs in a new stadium construction project.

The Central City Transit Task Force was formed after Sustainable Milwaukee did an “inventory of local funds” for possible economic development in the central city and discovered that federal transportation subsidies were one of the largest pots of money available. After researching various uses for the money, the group found that while there might be other ways of moving people around and getting them to where the jobs are, light-rail has the best potential in aiding in economic development.

“The transportation debate is really about economic development, says Rob Henken, executive director of the Alliance for Future Transit. “The biggest advantage light-rail has over other transportation options [in the central city] is the development potential. Since the stations are fixed, each station location is a possible opportunity for redevelopment and renewal” of the surrounding area.

Other cities with recent light-rail projects have seen significant development along trolley lines. Portland, Oregon, claims that $1.3 billion has been invested in new development along the light-rail tracks, while St. Louis and other cities have seen similar results.

Opponents of Milwaukee’s light-rail proposal say these numbers are nonsense. According to Wendell Cox, a Milwaukee public policy consultant, it’s impossible to prove whether economic development in St. Louis, San Diego, or Portland is a direct result of the light-rail system. “The dynamics of urban development are so complex as to render transit improvements an insignificant factor,” he says. Other opponents argue that the reduction in commuting time and the ability to get to suburban jobs are insignificant compared to the cost of building the system.

But for Martha Toran, a self-described “senior citizen community activist” and chair of the Central City Transit Task Force, this is all so much hot air. The reality, she says, is that all the federal transportation money floating around has to go somewhere, and why not to the central city? “We are not just going to give up and die by the wayside,” she says. “Fifty-eight percent of the people in the central city do not have cars. How are we supposed to get to work? You can’t tell me a light-rail system won’t help people in the community get to the jobs [and] get there faster and easier.”

The Key to Winning

Toran and other members of the Central City Transit Task Force have been patiently building community support for the light-rail proposal, and they see basebuilding as the long-term key to winning on the issue. The methods are drawn from the classic tools of community organizing: public meetings; visits to community members who seem particularly interested and willing to provide leadership; knocking on doors in the central city and calling people on the phone to turn them out for meetings; endless meetings with potential allies such as labor unions, churches and local businesses to inform them and garner their support; and direct confrontations between central city residents and decision-makers like Waukesha County executive Dan Finley.

For example, after Finley vetoed the plan containing the light-rail proposal in late April, Morris and several dozen Task Force members went to Waukesha to confront Finley, an action that received coverage on every TV station in the area. If they could not convince Finley to change his mind (they knew this was unlikely), they at least wanted him to be put on notice that the central city was organized and ready to fight over the issue.

Morris points out that the way transportation money is usually allocated is inherently discriminatory, because the vast majority of it is spent downtown or in the suburbs. “The bus routes themselves are discriminatory,” he says, pointing out that in low-income communities people generally have to walk farther and wait longer to catch a ride. In addition, even though Waukesha County’s population represents only 15 percent of the total population of the two counties, Waukesha gets an equal say with Milwaukee County in what the federal interstate money will be used for.

One strong possibility is that the Task Force could use the Office of Civil Rights in the federal Department of Transportation to file a complaint alleging that the Wisconsin DOT has deliberately discriminated against poor communities of color by not advertising the public meetings in the Central City. “We can tie this thing up forever,” says Morris.

According to Toran, even if the central city never gets light-rail, the fact that the community is becoming gradually more involved in the debate is a very hopeful sign. “We have to have a voice to deal with the powers that be,” she says.

John Anner is Editor of Third Force. Reprinted with permission. Originally published in Third Force, Volume 5, #3, July/August 1997, which is a bimonthly publication of the Center for Third World Organizing, 1218 East 21st Street, Oakland, CA 94606.

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