Saturday, July 25, 2015

Brilliant article on effects of suburb-based Wisconsin Transportation

If you have 15-30 minutes over the weekend, take a look at this outstanding article in Politico Magazine by Michael Grunwald on Wisconsin’s transportation policies. Entitled “Overpasses: A Love Story”, Grunwald talks about how the state, and especially the Milwaukee area, has been affected by its devotion to building more and more freeways in the last 50 years, to the delight of the Road Builders lobby and related campaign contributors. Grunwald hints that it’s not a change for the better, either fiscally or socially, and that the situation has worsened in the last 4 ½ years since Scott Walker and WisGOP took over state government.
I got a firsthand look at the consequences in Wisconsin, where snazzy megaprojects crowd out basic repairs, and politicians lavish attention on big highways at the expense of local roads and public transit. The anti-sprawl group Smart Growth American found that from 2009 to 2011, Wisconsin spent only 39 percent of its highway dollars on maintenance, versus 61 percent on new highway capacity that added to its maintenance backlog. As the state has shifted resources into freeway megaprojects, 71 percent of its roads are in mediocre or poor condition, according to federal data. Fourteen percent of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, which is actually better than the national average. Walker and his fellow Republicans have killed plans for light rail, commuter rail, high-speed rail, and dedicated bus lanes on major highways, so there is almost no public transportation connecting Milwaukee to its suburbs, intensifying divisions in one of the nation’s most racially, economically and politically segregated metropolitan areas. Yet Walker, who is running for president as a staunch fiscal conservative, has pushed a $250 million-per-mile plan to widen Interstate 94 between the Marquette and the Zoo despite fierce local opposition.

In some ways, Wisconsin represents an extreme example of the priorities that have traditionally dominated U.S. transportation policy, In some states, regional transit agencies are underfunded; in Wisconsin, thanks to Walker and the legislature, they’re illegal. Walker also killed a “Complete Streets” program that pushed road builders to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. The drive to promote driving has gotten so relentless that the courts have begun to apply the brakes. In a ruling with national implications, a federal judge recently blocked a $143 million expansion of a state highway between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan, citing absurdly inflated traffic estimates that Wisconsin transportation officials had used to justify it. Another potentially precedent-setting lawsuit alleged the Zoo project would serve suburban commuters at the expense of inner-city minorities; the Walker administration had to fund three new bus routes to settle it.
In addition to the cutting and limiting of non-driving transportation options, the 262 Republicans that support Walker and their 1980s mentality of "drive-drive-drive" and "sprawl-sprawl-sprawl" have let to policies that hamper the ability of local Wisconsin communities to fix their own streets. And as Grunwald notes, the Governor and his backers don’t seem to want people to find about its big-spending history on expressways and their high-dollar future plans when it comes to transportation.
State transportation officials, who initially agreed to show me around their [SE Wisconsin] megaprojects, later cancelled my tour and declined to comment; I was told by others that Walker’s aides had intervened. Goss and some of his colleagues with the road builders showed me around instead, and they noted that WISDOT actually backed off an earlier plan to double-deck that stretch of I-94, which would have been even more expensive and intrusive. The larger point for defenders of the megaprojects is that whether or not you like the carbon emissions, the land-use patterns, or the implications for the social contract, most Wisconsinites drive, and they do a lot of their driving on freeways. Only about 8 percent of the Milwaukee area’s commuters walk, bike, or take buses to work. The economy runs on concrete.

The critics argue that even for Wisconsinites who do drive, the state’s rush to supersize highways is draining upkeep for the local roads they use every day, like adding a new wing onto a house with a leaky roof and a busted furnace. In 2003, the ratio of state spending on highways to local roads was about 2:1. By 2013, the ratio had soared to more than 3:1—and state law prohibits municipalities from raising sales taxes to fix their own roads. [note: several legislators up North have sponsored a bill that would allow such a sales tax for local roads] Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Latino activist in Milwaukee, showed me around some of the city’s minority neighborhoods, where gutted streets contribute to a sense of malaise. Mandela Barnes, a young African-American state representative from the city’s north side, told me he recently had to replace the suspension on his Dodge Charger, a casualty of local potholes. Jeff Parisi, a contractor who has helped repair Main Streets in small towns like Waunakee, Platteville and Stoughton, said he’s scrambling to adjust to cuts in local road aid, and small towns with aging Main Streets are, too.
And here it is worth mentioning that while the Zoo Interchange did receive a haircut in the final state budget, as the North end of the project will be delayed by 2 years, it is nothing compared to the effects that will be seen by a $250 million total cut in other major state highways outside of Southeast Wisconsin, and a cut of over 6% in each year to state and local highway maintenance (and that's in dollar amounts. Given that highway inflation is high right now, the real cut will be much higher).

Interestingly, the Walker/WisGOP budget still counts on using the same amount of Federal Highway funds as the base 2014-15 year budget, with a disproportionate amount of federal funds going to pay for major highways and maintenance outside of the Milwaukee area megaprojects. This is noteworthy given that the federal highway trust fund runs out next week, and there is no bill that has been passed to replace it, and no agreement in place. Oddly, the Walker Administration and WisGOP doesn't seem to be worried about the possibility of these Federal Highway funds not being there next week or being drastically reduced, which in stark contrast to their excuse of not expanding Medicaid because there is no guarantee of Obamacare funding being 2020!

Walker also cut state shared revenues in his first budget, and has generally failed to fully restore them for the 4 years since. This newly-installed budget does not set aside any additional funds for local road aids, transit, or state shared revenues, which means the higher costs of road repair get put onto local property taxes, or services in those communities get cut. This will then mean those costs of deferred maintenance pile up, and more expenses have to be shelled out for in future budgets…which already have structural deficits built into them due to the refusal of Walker and WisGOP to raise taxes or fees to pay for their current road-building binges.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing this weekend, as it touches on the racial, anti-city politics that are a main part of this regressive strategy on transportation. (For example, Assembly Speaker Robbin’ Vos is quoted in the story as saying public transit is a “social service than a traditional transportation program”, intended to give more state taxpayer dollars to poor people in cities.) We can only hope that more of this kind of in-depth reporting with context continues to come out on how Scott Walker REALLY has operated, so the rest of the nation could see how damaging the "divide and conquer" mentality would be if it came from the Oval Office, and how that mentality would make the U.S. fall behind the developed and developing world when it came to transportation.

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