Friday, September 21, 2007

Milwaukee: Minor League Traffic, Major League Expense-ways: Guest Post

I'm pleased to post this guest essay by Steve Filmanowicz, a former Milwaukee journalist, and now Communications Director at the Congress for the New Urbanism - - CNU, the Chicago urban design organization run by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist (for whom Steve and I both worked).

By Steve Filmanowicz

What would it take for Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and other state leaders — many of whom are at loggerheads over how to pass a state budget that doesn't raise taxes — to question the need to spend a mind-boggling $6 billion dollars expanding and "enhancing" Southeast Wisconsin's freeway system?

How about the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and top radio talker Charlie Sykes, both of whom pride themselves on their roles in protecting the taxpayers from wasteful government spending?

Well, what if the nation's most authoritative traffic study ranked congestion in Milwaukee 48th among US metro areas — way, way behind gridlock capitals such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas, behind even out-of-the-way locales such as Birmingham, AL and Colorado Springs?

If that were the case, surely the stewards and watchdogs of taxpayer dollars would call for rethinking, scaling back and "value engineering" this colossal public works project. After all, if freeways and major roads in Milwaukee are in or heading towards a crisis, government should by all means step in and fix them.

But if congestion here is already strictly minor league — on a par with Omaha, where the smell wafting from livestock trucks is often a bigger concern than commuting delays — why tax people to the tune of $1,100 per Wisconsin resident to supersize our freeway system?

Why not check the facts first?

The Texas Transportation Institute just issued the latest update of that authoritative study, the 2007 Urban Mobility Report, and it indeed confirms that Milwaukee is already one of the nation's leading traffic success stories — even with its supposedly inadequate 1970s-era highway system.

Even before spending a dime on the $6 billion enhancement/expansion plan.

In fact, the ranking quoted above is from the previous TTI mobility report, published in 2005. The 2007 report ranks Milwaukee even better -- 59th in hours of delay per rush-hour traveler for the most recent year measured (2005). Delays are now worse in Allentown-Bethlehem, PA than in Milwaukee despite what Billy Joel had to say about "closing all the factories down."

And despite what you've been taught to fear about highways being on the verge of filling up, the TTI (a highway-friendly organization, by the way) reports that the actual delays experienced by Milwaukee area travelers have been declining.

In 1995, it was 22 hours per traveler. In 2000, it was 20 hours. And in 2005, it was 19. (This was all before major work began on the Marquette Interchange project, which influenced delays but far, far less than expected.)

At 19 hours of delay per peak-period traveler, Milwaukee is now on par with Tulsa and New Haven, CN.

But hey, if we spend $6 billion more, could we go lower?

For comparison purposes, two metro areas in our population group with lots more highways (and stronger economies), Minneapolis and San Diego, have double and triple the hours of delay per peak traveler and these numbers have generally been growing.

The average Detroit rush-hour traveler experiences 54 hours of delay, despite the region's declining economy and abundance of freeways.

Interestingly, Milwaukee actually subtracted from its highway system slightly -- replacing the .8 mile Park East Freeway with a boulevard and lift bridge -- and saw overall congestion drop.

Whatever measures are used, the 2007 Urban Mobility Report paints a consistently uncongested picture of Milwaukee area traffic. The length of the "rush hour" here was 5.6 hours in the latest year measured (2005), down from 6.2 hours in 2000. The share of congested "lane miles" of highways and principal arterials fell to 25% from 31% in 2000.

Read the report for yourself ( and you'll see that there's next to nothing in it that suggests traffic is a major issue in Milwaukee. In fact, the TTI gives Milwaukee its lowest possible congestion scores (L- and S-), concluding that the region has "much lower" than average congestion and "much slower" than average congestion growth.

Despite being prepared by the top traffic experts in the country, these conclusions differ rather sharply from what was presented to Milwaukeeans by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) when it debuted its highway plan calling for adding lanes to pretty much every stretch of interstate in Southeast Wisconsin.

The powerpoint presentation SEWRPC used at public hearings is still available on its website and has graphs showing more freeway miles subject to "bumper-to-bumper" traffic (through 1999) and maps showing more and more stretches subject to "extreme" congestion (also through 1999).

SEWRPC typically explains that it takes the long view. Economic fluctuations affect traffic in the short-term. But a check of the TTI archives shows that traffic in Milwaukee has been improving relative to other metro areas for decades.

Milwaukee's ranking in delay per traveler hovered around 40 for much of the 1980s, hit 39 in 1999 and has been heading down towards 59 since then.

SEWRPC has also noted that our aging system needs to rebuilt in some form, so shouldn't it be "modernized" — meaning not just reducing areas of weaving and other obvious problems but broadening existing lanes, lengthening ramps and straightening out curves in order to keep speeds up?

And since we're making room for this footprint-swelling and budget-swelling modernization anyway, why not go the extra mile and add lanes to all of Milwaukee's major highways?

SEWRPC answers these questions without regard for how its plans are funded, creating a bias toward overbuilding, toward paving for a rainy day. The current plan was actually unfunded at the time of its adoption and Governor Doyle has chosen to follow blithely along, stretching the state budget to accommodate it

As a result, we have the Escalade of Cadillac highway plans — the newest and biggest that money can buy. Apologists for freeway overbuilding typically accuse urbanists of wanting to worsen traffic in a vain attempt to force people to live close to the city, but that argument simply doesn't apply here.

Traffic on Milwaukee's major routes is currently at levels that other metro areas would kill for, yet expansion supporters call for spending billions to make it even easier to drive ever longer distances.

As hard as this strategy is to justify today given our Tulsa-sized traffic, it gets even harder when you consider, as Jim Rowen did recently on this blog, that SEWRPC based its future traffic projections on a future with $2.30 per-gallon gasoline. Tight gas supplies and growing global demand will have the power to make these cheap-gas projections look embarrassingly shortsighted.

The decision over how much taxpayer money to plow into freeways — a decision that has admittedly already been made, just without the thorough public review of costs and benefits it deserved — comes down to priorities.

In a region like Milwaukee that is struggling for its economic life in a highly competitive world economy, tax dollars and other economic resources are precious.

If instead of the Escalade highway plan, Governor Doyle were to give Southeast Wisconsin the Camry plan or even the green Prius plan featuring enhanced transit, the couple of billion dollars or so in savings could go to an array of strategically beneficial uses — fixing structurally deficient bridges, making Wisconsin a leader in science and math education from the elementary through university level, or just keeping more money in taxpayers' pockets so they can put it to work themselves.

Or we can build the ultimate highway system and move a few more notches down the congestion list.

After all, we still have Akron and Buffalo to catch.


1 comment:

Jack Lohman said...

The best way to solve the southbound Zoo interchange fiasco is to complete the Fond du Lac expressway down to the Stadium so people could get to MKE diagonally.

But stupid stuff should stop. Several years ago they spent tens of millions moving the left exit to the right side at Appleton and I45, and giving us the same two lanes north and two lanes south that we started with.

A resurfacing would have been sufficient, but that was when the road-builder's money was flowing heavily to the politicians. So what else should we expect?