Monday, August 1, 2016

Walker highway funding fiasco growing more insane

It's bad enough that Scott Walker is living in a Fantasy World where he refuses to raise taxes or fees to pay for the state's huge needs for road repairs, but now we find out his delusion is even worse than we knew. As Jason Stein and Patrick Marley accurately pointed out in a big Sunday article, Walker wants even more building, while claiming to hold the line on spending and taxes. In a classic example of “watch what he does and not what he says,” Walker was telling reporters up North one thing while doing another behind the scenes.
This month, Walker told a Northwoods television station the state is going to focus more on outstate roads and "not going to do, in the foreseeable future, any big projects, particularly in the Milwaukee area." He's made similar comments elsewhere.

But in a May 13 letter, the GOP governor told the Federal Highway Administration that his administration wants to kick off an $850 million project to widen an east-west stretch of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges from six lanes to eight.

"I support the advancement of this project and believe there is a reasonable expectation our 2017-2019 budget will be passed with the appropriate level of highway funding needed to advance the state's highest priority needs," Walker wrote to Michael Davies, an administrator at the federal agency.

As with most highway projects, it would be funded jointly by the state and federal governments, which both heavily rely on gas taxes to pay for roads.

The state already has years of work ahead to finish two other megaprojects: the Zoo Interchange connecting I-94 eastbound to I-41 northbound; and the north-south section of I-94 between Milwaukee's south side and the Illinois border.
So explain to me how there won’t be any new funds for new Megaprojects in Southeastern Wisconsin (and remember that the I-94 and Zoo Interchange projects will be continuing through that 2017-19 budget), and yet you're planning on putting a whole new lane on I-94 in the middle of the state's largest city?

More remarkable is that Walker was begging the Feds for money to pay for that I-94 project, and then proceeded to rant at the GOP convention about how “liberal Washington” is overbearing and that the states should be relied on more for decisions and funding for projects. The I-94 road work is also not the only time the Walker Administration has been asking for a DC handout on high interstate projects in Wisconsin roads this year, as we found out last month that WisDOT is taking advantage of $40 million in federal money to help speed along expansion work on I-90 near Janesville.

Even worse is that the I-94 expansion in Milwaukee may not even be needed. Read this report that aired on Channel 12 from 2014, where residents near Miller Park and then-Milwaukee Common Council president Michael Murphy opposed the I-94 expansion, with Murphy saying it would be wiser for the state to use funds to fix local roads than widen the interstate.

A similar theme was sounded last year by a group of “smart-growth” activists known as the “Coalition for More Responsible Transportation” (CMRT), who said that traffic studies show the I-94 expansion is unnecessary,. In addition, they noted that a Transportation Fund already drowning in debt from prior projects could use some relief and flexibility to pay for alternative forms of transportation.
CMRT believes that the overbuilding of highways is not only drastic and expensive, but unnecessary. WisDOT justifies the proposal to add more lanes to I-94 by projecting a 23 percent increase in traffic near the Miller Park by 2040. But an analysis by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin conducted last October shows traffic has actually decreased by 8 percent along that stretch of highway.

Because there is no need to widen I-94, the development will divert taxpayer money from projects that would have more economic impact. A report by WISPIRG, Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin found that by scaling back highway expansion projects, the state could save taxpayers nearly $500 million in the coming biennium. The savings could then reduce the state’s reliance on bonding and spending money on interest payments, and instead be spent on local priorities like road repair, transit and bike/pedestrian infrastructure. “Wisconsin needs a responsible transportation budget,” said Elizabeth Ward, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter. “We should invest our limited transportation funds in the most critical priorities while looking for savings wherever possible. And we have to take a particularly hard look at multibillion-dollar investments in major highway expansion projects, especially since Wisconsinites are driving less.”

CMRT also believes that the development of I-94 will have a negative impact on businesses around the Milwaukee area. More funding for highways means less funding for fixing local roads and less accessibility for public transit, which can impede people from reaching their place of employment, school, and medical care. As veteran Capitol reporter Matt Pommer has written, “fifteen years ago, 40 percent of the state transportation fund was returned to municipal and county governments. Now, less than one-third of that fund returns to local governments.” That has had a negative impact on all local roads, but particularly in metro Milwaukee. He notes a 2013 study which found “more than half of the roads in the Milwaukee area were in poor condition. It suggested that road conditions cost Milwaukee-area drivers an average of about $700 per year in vehicle repairs.”
And as someone that has traveled that stretch of I-94 numerous times in my life, I concur with that analysis. The section Walker is proposing to expand is the one part of east-west I-94 in the Milwaukee metro area that has the least amount of rush-hour issues, because many drivers heading from Waukesha County to the airport or points south use I-894, and I-43/I-94 takes up another part of the traffic that goes north-south. Plus, given that the area of the expansion has been built up with housing and other structures for decades (along with the cemetery just west of Miller Park), the roadway is already tight and there is little room to add on, making an expansion project even more of a problem.

Let’s also note another bit of irony, where Walker is asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to expand an interstate near Milwaukee, and is offering to have state taxpayers put up a sizable amount of the rest of the cost. But that same Governor turned down over $800 million in funds from “liberal Washington” to allow people to use high-speed rail between Madison, Milwaukee, an Chicago, a project that would not have required one dime of state money, and would have reduced the need for the expanded capacity on I-94 that Walker now says we need.

And oh yeah, Scotty also still has no explanation how he’s going to pay for this extra highway project, as the state battles with a $939 million shortfall for roads BEFORE this I-94 expansion is accounted for. The question of “HOW ARE YOU GOING TO DO THIS/PAY FOPR THIS” is quite reminiscent of how I felt watching the non-racist parts of Drumpf’s RNC speech. And you wonder why I say today’s GOP is unfit for office, and shouldn’t be trusted to run a hot dog stand, let alone a state or country?

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