What Milwaukee Needs To Learn From Waukesha
I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
In late 2010, officials in Waukesha took $186,000 in federal stimulus funds and used it to purchase eight minivans. The vehicles were to be given to local employers who would, in turn, give the vehicles to their employees for carpooling. The employer would then pay Waukesha County a nominal monthly fee for use of the vans.
In all the time the program operated, seven of the eight vans were never used. The one van that was used was for what I understand was a five-person carpool. That's right. Waukesha spent $186,000 in federal tax money (plus another $35,000 in marketing costs) so that five people could carpool to work!
It would probably have been cheaper to have Chopper 4 fly these folks back and forth to work every day.
In any event, last week the Waukesha County Board finally put this program out of its misery.
In retrospect, it's not surprising that this program failed. When people get jobs, one of the first things they buy is a car to have the freedom to come and go as they please. Still, it's amazing to me that this program was such a complete bust.
I think it's fair to question whether Waukesha officials did their due diligence before blowing all this taxpayer money? Why buy the vans before companies had committed to participate? Why buy the vans without an accurate assessment of how many people would actually use the service? Why not buy one or two vans - instead of eight - to assess whether there was any real interest in the program?
Anyway, Waukesha County hopes to sell the unused minivans to local non-profits in order to recover some of their money. Hopefully, taxpayers won't take too much of a bath.
So, what does all this have to do with Milwaukee?
Waukesha's van pooling program essentially offered door-to-door service for workers - and it couldn't find an audience. Why would anyone think a 2.1 mile streetcar line that runs from the downtown bus depot to the lower East Side of Milwaukee will be any more successful? The only real difference is that Waukesha's failure cost taxpayers around $200,000. Milwaukee's failure will (including the expense of moving utility lines) cost taxpayers well over $100 million.
Before well-run private companies make huge capital expenditures, they study the market to see if their is a real demand for what they're thinking of doing. When it comes to government, the thinking seems to be "spend the money regardless of whether anybody needs or wants what we're buying".
This sums up "Mayor Tom's Trolley Folly" pretty nicely.
Waukesha officials leapt before they looked and it cost taxpayers a couple of hundred grand. The City of Milwaukee is prepared to do exactly the same thing - except this leap will cost tens of millions of dollars.