Monday, June 30, 2008

What An $823,000 Campaign Donation Buys These Days

So State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler decided to write off loans she made to her campaign, essentially converting $823,000 to a donation.

I guess that establishes the market rate for a Supreme Court seat.

Atlanta Notes Light Rail Progress In Houston And Phoenix

The Atlanta Journal Constitution bemoans its risk-averse leaders who won't follow more visionary cities' transit planning.

Amazing, isn't it, that those visionary cities are Houston and Phoenix - - once conservative bastions now on the cutting edge of light rail expansion, through local taxation.

I used to think that the main Milwaukee - - Atlanta connection was our sharing a baseball franchise.

Now I see that cities have something else in common - - we're both entering the era of expensive gasoline with inadequate transit.

Trains? No One Rides Them Around Here...Wait...Yes, They Do, In Record Numbers

You hear it on talk radio all the time: No one will ride the train, blah blah blah.

Except...Amtrak is setting records between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Now imagine for a moment that you could ride the light rail from Brookfield or UW-M or King Drive, transfer at the InterModal station downtown, and continue on to Chicago via Amtrak, or south on the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line?

Oh...I forgot...that wouldn't work here, because no one will ride the train.

Great Lakes Compact Headed To The Congress

When Pennsylvania becomes the eighth and last Great Lakes state to approve the Great Lakes Compact, the agreement moves to Congress for final US approval.

The AP is following the story, here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bottled Water Craziness: This Is What Is Called "A False Need"

This will make your head swim.

Canadian News Story Rips Water Policies There

In a lengthy story, (fair warning) the Edmonton, Canada, Sun newspaper details problems with national and provincial water supply usage, pricing, and managment.

Wanting Water, Blocking Transit, Insulting Bus Riders: Waukesha's Self-Defeating Approach To Milwaukee

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee professor Marc Levine explains in an absolutely essential Journal Sentinel Crossroads op-ed that the Milwaukee regional economy will go from bad to worse as gas prices spike without immediate modern transit investments - - including light rail - - like those now that have been made or are being planned in nearly every other major city in America.

Note the editorial position a day earlier in The Freeman, Waukesha's daily paper, that endorsed:

A) The permanent erasure of light rail from regional transportation consideration.

B) The deliberate absence of Waukesha County's participation in a regional transit authority because it mostly helped Milwaukee.

C) The value in an op-ed it ran on June 18th by Mark Belling, the conservative AM radio talk show host, who opined that bus riders were "fringe" people.

In other words: 'Milwaukee: Up Yours,' or as Freeman columnist Pete Kennedy said about a year ago in that paper, "Milwaukee Sucks."

The key policy paragraphs from The Freeman editorial (full text here):

"First of all, while we are fine with regional partnerships and cooperation, we remain firmly against Waukesha County being part of a regional transit authority.

"It doesn’t make sense and is not in the interest of Waukesha County residents is to establish a regional transit authority that has the power to raise your taxes and will have aims that mostly benefit Milwaukee.

"In regard to mass transit, all efforts that affect Waukesha County should be based on automobiles and buses.

"The idea of light rail should be derailed for good. It just isn’t practical.

"The expense and inflexibility of such a system are deal breakers. Instead the focus should be on buses.

"We could potentially see a future where someone opts to go downtown Milwaukee via a hybrid doubledecker bus instead of a car.

"But if that doesn’t happen and no one uses the buses, at least there won’t be all kinds of expensive light rail tracks going unused."

This is the same disregard-and-weaken approach that Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission imposed on Milwaukee when the agency recommended widening freeways through land, tax base, homes and businesses in Milwaukee - - regardless of the majority votes in objections by the Milwaukee County Board and Common Council.

And the Common Council has extended its anti-freeway widening with a more recent vote against adding lanes from Milwaukee to the Illinois line, but in favor of adding the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line, instead.

WisDOT brushed aside that proposal, knowing it had in hand the original SEWRPC freeway plan, for which it paid SEWRPC $1 million to craft.

SEWRPC will soon recommend what Waukesha interests have been seeking for years as the crown jewel for future county development - - diversions of Lake Michigan water through Milwaukee's water works to new subdivisions on formerly rural land.

This will continue to accelerate the movement of capital and jobs from Milwaukee to areas not served by the very modern regional transit that Levine defines as crucial for the region's success.

Waukesha's parsing of the language of regionalism, (we're for regional cooperation even when we're not), its cherry-picking among regional initiatives to support (water, yes; transit, no), and its embrace of Belling keeps sending a negative message to Milwaukee.

This will only encourage Milwaukee to think twice before agreeing to transfer city resources like water, or a contribution to SEWRPC's operating budget ($400,000 this year, but without a city vote on the agency board, as I have pointed out) to the very suburban areas and decision-makers that have so little regard for the city.

Waukesha leaders (that business conference sponsored last week in Waukesha where toll roads for Wisconsin got a big sloppy wet kiss) should really begin to think through the ramifications of their positions on regional water/development/transportation issues.

Do they understand that dump-on-Milwaukee rhetoric, and policy directions that block the city's development will inevitably encourage Milwaukee to look elsewhere for supportive partners?

Such as the more urbanized Racine and Kenosha counties, and to Chicago, where there are certainly larger numbers of "fringe" people.

The Freeman Balks At Regional Transit Cooperation, Milwaukee Rail

I got severely criticized a couple of weeks ago when I suggested that Milwaukee opt out of the Southeastern Wisconsin Planning Commission, SEWRPC, being told that I was undermining regional cooperation.

I argued the commission didn't operate in Milwaukee's interest.

But now along comes The Freeman, Waukesha's daily paper, along with some area public officials, who want Waukesha County to stay out of a cooperative, regional body - - the Regional Transportation Authority, or RTA, which is working across the region to try and rationalize transit services.

The Freeman argues that the RTA isn't in Waukesha County's interest.


The Freeman also got in a good kick at light rail because the paper sees it as only benefiting Milwaukee - - which, the last time I checked, is the biggest city in the most populous county in the region, let alone the whole darn state.

Will the editorial result in an uproar over disrespect for regionalism? Will there be concern about a lack of cooperation with the City of Milwaukee, or the counties in the RTA - - Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee County - - and its mutual mission?


Here is The Freeman editorial and related material from the paper, which also praises Mark Belling and rips toll roads:

Waukesha County should stay out of regional transit authority

– Freeman editorial board

Waukesha Freeman
June 28, 2008

Regional leaders, including some from Waukesha County, were involved in several discussions this week to discuss regional transportation issues.

The Waukesha County Action Network held talks about funding transportation and regional leaders attended a summit in Milwaukee to discuss transportation and mass transit.

We’d like to address a few items that came up during the discussions:

First of all, while we are fine with regional partnerships and cooperation, we remain firmly against Waukesha County being part of a regional transit authority.

It doesn’t make sense and is not in the interest of Waukesha County residents is to establish a regional transit authority that has the power to raise your taxes and will have aims that mostly benefit Milwaukee.


In regard to mass transit, all efforts that affect Waukesha County should be based on automobiles and buses.

The idea of light rail should be derailed for good. It just isn’t practical.

The expense and inflexibility of such a system are deal breakers. Instead the focus should be on buses. We could potentially see a future where someone opts to go downtown Milwaukee via a hybrid doubledecker bus instead of a car.

But if that doesn’t happen and no one uses the buses, at least there won’t be all kinds of expensive light rail tracks going unused.

Here’s the best idea that came up during the discussions this week:

“Maybe we have to just leave Waukesha County out of the RTA now and once they see how well it works, hope they’ll be clamoring to get in.” – state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale.

Don’t count on too much clamoring from out west, Jeff. But, yes, leave Waukesha County out of it.


Here’s the worst idea that came up this week, this one from another transportation panel:

Transportation experts said Wisconsin needs to implement toll roads because the state doesn’t have enough money for road repair and construction in the region. Just think, all those taxes you pay and there still isn’t enough to fix our roads.

By the way, is there really anything about Illinois that we want to emulate?


There’s a buzzword that was floating around the discussions this week: NEGATIVITY.

Leaders repeatedly referenced Mark Belling’s recent Freeman column critical of mass transit. But instead of taking his opinion into consideration, many of the leaders chalked it up to the NEGATIVE climate surrounding the regional transit issue.

This dismissive attitude from some of these leaders toward those who oppose a regional transit authority is arrogant and condescending.

The reason there is negativity toward a regional transit authority is because it is a bad idea that would cost taxpayers a lot of money. Of course, we realize we will now be labeled as part of the NEGATIVE alliance against light rail and high taxes. We can live with that.


There certainly can be some good that comes from all of these leaders getting together.

We call on Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson and Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas to continue the discussion but to stand up for Waukesha County’s best interests.

Those interests do not include getting roped into a regional transit authority.

Instead, let’s try a different approach.

Let’s find a way to get the most out of the connections being made with other regional leaders through these discussions. There is a need to think regionally. There’s no doubt about that.

But the best way to go is for the communities to find common ground as neighbors, not join together to create a new transit system.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Citizen Water Board Proposed For Michigan; A Wisconsin Goal, Too?

Dave Dempsey proposes a citizen panel on water policy in Michigan to address gaps in state policy, and also with regard to the Great Lakes Compact there, too.

Wisconsin activists should consider something similar.

Is Government Interested In Hearing From The Public About Transportation Planning?

Wisconsin is continuing to press forward with billions of dollars in new highway construction ( 120 miles of new freeway lanes alone in the seven southeastern Wisconsin counties, as part of a $6.5 billion rebuild and expansion scheme) though story-after-story and fact-after-fact suggest - - actually scream - - that driving is declining as gasoline prices keep spiking.

An OPEC official is quoted this weekend predicting $170-per-barrel oil in six months.

Nationally we need a Marshall Plan or NASA-level initiative focused on transportation to make sure that we have decent transit within a relatively short time frame.

Wisconsin and the midwest states need their piece, as does Milwaukee, where the largest number of low-income people live.

If we had a state transportation department or regional planning commission that were run merely by realists, not psychic futurists, these agencies would have already begun to hold public listening sessions to respond to this new paradigm with transit planning driven by public input.

Instead, the transportation department is rushing the start of eight years of work on I-94 from Milwaukee to Illinois at a cost of $1.9 billion, without funding a parallel commuter rail line.

The plan was hatched a few years ago by the regional planning commission (SEWRPC) that used traffic predictions with gasoline costing about $2.50-a-gallon.

Now that things have changed drastically, is there any organized effort to begin to gather any opinion from the grassroots? Anyone at the state or regional levels interested in opinions from everyday people about what direction our transportation planning should be heading?



As I thought.

Milwaukee Talker Says Enviros Are "Evil...Want Us Dead."

I've refocused an earlier post with a link to what may be the all-time Milwaukee GoofyTime AM radio talk show soundbite.

Here was the setting:

Gov. Jim Doyle's task force on global warming reached some common ground and produced a set of recommendations.This required some analysis on talk radio, so as AM 1130 WISN rightie talker Vicki McKenna led into the break at 11:30 Friday morning, she denounced environmental supporters of such anti-global warming actions as "evil people."

Then amplified the description as "evil, evil people," among "the most evil people" ever, who "want to kill us, I swear to God, they want us dead."

She then told her audience she was going to drive around in her 10-year-old Chevy Silverado truck and think up more arguments against global warming.

Link to her second hour Friday, June 27th podcast, at the 20 minute mark and listen until the segment ends in less than two-and-a-half minutes.

So it goes on Milwaukee's ubiquitous AM conservative talk radio stations.

More Epic Reverberations Against The WMC

The story of Epic Systems' dispute with the right-wing political spending by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) seems to have legs.

Run, Bob, Run

My favorite presidential candidate this year, bar none.

Mark Belling Is Mike McGee's #1 Fan

Ol' Belling was in full rightie talkie mode today, cackling over recordings used to help Ald. Mike McGee essentially convict himself in federal court.

McGee has been great fodder for certain talkers and bloggers, and Belling has loved every minute of it.

Makes you wonder: what will these talkers do for a foil once McGee is completely gone from the scene?

Leaders Call For More Transit - - But Not Waukesha County Exec Dan Vrakas

Add road capacity, says Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas.

I suppose he's down with that tolling idea rolled out the other day by SEWRPC's executive director, Phil Evenson.

Seems like Waukesha County is ground zero of the tax-and-spend more movement.

Now It's Tim Sheehy's Choo-Choo Train

Anti-rail zealots who railed against rail used to derisively call John Norquist's proposed light rail equipment "choo-choo trains."

Now they are giving the treatment to Tim Sheehy, executive director of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce.

Sheehy has had the temerity to back commuter rail - - not trolley-like light rail in the City of Milwaukee - - serving suburban communities from Milwaukee to Racine to Kenosha because it would move people and create development along the route.

For that, Sheehy earns a mocking.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Global Warming Compromise Recommendations Spur Allegations Of Evil

Gov. Jim Doyle's task force on global warming reached some common ground and produced a set of recommendations.

This required some analysis on talk radio, so as AM 1130 WISN rightie talker Vicki McKenna led into the break at 11:30 Friday morning, she denounced environmental supporters of such anti-global warming actions as "evil people."

Then amplified the description as "evil, evil people," among "the most evil people" ever, who "want to kill us, I swear to God, they want us dead."

She then told her audience she was going to drive around in her 10-year-old Chevy Silverado truck and think up more arguments against global warming.

Think I am making this up?

Link to her second hour Friday, June 27th podcast, at the 20 minute mark and listen until the segment ends in less than two-and-a-half minutes.

So it goes on Milwaukee's ubiquitous AM conservative talk radio stations.

More Defections From The WMC

Businesses keep dropping away from the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce as they realize their dues are being spent on reactionary politics that are not in Wisconsin's best interests.

A leading Wisconsin high-tech business, Epic Systems, Verona, ratchets up the pressure, declining to do business with firms that are WMC members.

Wisconsin Democracy Coalition takes note, too.

Conservative third-party ads from the WMC and other organizations were featured in the recent State Supreme Court election, where conservative challenger Burnett County Circuit Court Judge Michael Gableman unseated incumbent Justice Louis Butler.

After the race, a WMC board member resigned after receiving a letter of complaint from a consumer; projects by One Wisconsin Now, Milwaukee, and another by former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin are carrying out progressive educational efforts statewide about the WMC and its activities.

Some information about One Wisconsin Now (I am on one of its boards) and the WMC effort is here.

Soglin has some interesting background to report, too, here.

Right-Wing Talk Radio Hosts Are Killing The Public Interest

Community leaders finally notice.

Dramatic Cuts At Midwest Airlines Will Rock Greater Milwaukee

There are few business with more of a signature presence and value to the Milwaukee area than Midwest Airlines, making the company's announcement of substantial layoffs, equipment reductions and related trims all the more disturbing.

Spiraling fuel costs will continue to wreak havoc on the economy as it adjusts, if that is the right word, to oil prices that will not quit spiking.

A fundamentally crippled Midwest Airlines, or worse, a hometown service folded invisibly into a larger corporate parent would be a tremendous financial and psychological blow to Milwaukee.

Norquist Explains Sprawl's New Costs To Homebuyers, CNN Audience

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist explains to a CNN audience why commuting costs in this era of costly gasoline are making homes in cities and close-in suburbs better deals for buyers than those in more distant communities.

Norquist's organization, the Congress for the New Urbanism, has posted information about commuting costs and housing values on its website, here.

No Ice At The North Pole? No Evidence Of global Warming?

The climate change deniers will have a tough time with this one.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Op-Ed In The Freeman About Regionalism

The Freeman generously allowed me op-ed space in its edition today to raise some of the regionalism issues I've discussed on this blog.

Here is the text: [Update: I need to correct or amplify two points. First: Where I reference "core staff" at SEWRPC, the correct term is "management staff," meaning the eleven senior positions only. This was a misunderstanding on my part of SEWRPC terminology. Secondly, where I say that the Milwaukee County Board and Common Council voted against new freeway lanes, I needed to say more precisely that those votes were against adding new in the City of Milwaukee only]


Milwaukee gets second-class treatment from SEWRPC

Despite public funding, agency fails to represent its population base


(James Rowen has written for newspapers and served as a senior mayoral staffer in Madison and Milwaukee. His blog can be found at

Milwaukee County and its largest jurisdiction, the city of Milwaukee, should withdraw from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and create a new organization to better serve a big city.

And while we’re talking about reforms to SEWRPC, a healthy dose of sunlight on its spending and decision-making would help taxpayers across its seven-county region better assess SEWRPC’s performance – not just for Milwaukee, but your town and wallet, too.

First, some numbers (rounded-off):

Using 2007 official estimates, Milwaukee County’s 951,000 residents total 47.5 percent of the region’s population of 2,003,000.

But because each SEWRPC county has three seats on its 21-member board, Milwaukee County has only 14 percent (one-seventh) of the board seats.

It gets worse.

The city of Milwaukee, with 603,000 residents, gets none of the SEWRPC board seats because of the county-only appointment procedure.

That’s the situation even though Milwaukee’s city population exceeds each of all six non-Milwaukee County SEWRPC counties – ranging from Waukesha County’s 379,300 people to Walworth County’s 85,600.

And even more discriminatory:

City of Milwaukee taxpayers transferred $396,000 in property tax dollars to SEWRPC for its current operating budget, while Walworth, Washington, Ozaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties paid between $145,400 to $196,000.

Beginning to see the picture?

Suppose this were Waukesha’s situation. Would that be OK with you, in the name of regionalism?

(In fact, Waukesha County’s contribution to SEWRPC this year of $669,000 was exceeded only by Milwaukee County’s $834,000. Since Waukesha County gets the same number of SEWRPC seats – three – as the less-populated, lesser-paying counties, Waukesha County taxpayers might ask whether SEWRPC is a good deal for them, too.)

For the city of Milwaukee, this is disenfranchised governance, and taxation without representation – circumstances made more unacceptable because no senior, so-called “core staffer” at SEWRPC is a city of Milwaukee resident, or is a minority individual, though most of the region’s minorities live in Milwaukee, where minorities now constitute the majority.

The frequent absence of minorities on SEWRPC’s advisory committees, where much of the agency’s policy development takes place, enhances the belief that SEWRPC has a pro-suburban tilt.

Examples of that suburban orientation:

SEWRPC spent nearly $1 million studying and endorsing adding 120 miles of new freeway lanes in the region at the loss of millions of dollars in Milwaukee taxable property. The plan was opposed by majorities at the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board.

SEWRPC is helping with hurried approvals for a $25 million Interstate 94 interchange to a proposed shopping mall at Pabst Farms in western Waukesha County – even as a far, far less expensive bus line bringing Milwaukee workers to jobs in Waukesha County was eliminated.

SEWRPC has failed since 1975 to write a much-promised regional study about affordable housing. Yet it has spent millions on operations and studies since 1975, including nearly $1 million on the freeway plan, and close to another $1 million on a separate three-year study, now nearly complete, that will likely recommend Lake Michigan water diversions for suburban communities.

Bottom line: Milwaukee’s issues and relationship at SEWRPC have second-class status.

SEWRPC has a budget this year of $7,280,000 made up 100 percent of public dollars, but often behaves less like a public agency, and more like a private business, according to records and interviews.

For example, it selected current SEWRPC Deputy Director Ken Yunker to be executive director beginning in 2009, though did not conduct a search or other public outreach.

SEWRPC bought its current (City of) Pewaukee office building headquarters in 2001 without equivalent consideration of other properties, and agreed to pay $20,000 to Waukesha County for departing early from leased space in the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum.

SEWRPC pays for public relations services rather than rely on in-house personnel, though it has not yet implemented one proposal from the PR firm: changing the agency name from Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission to Regional Planning Commission of Southeastern Wisconsin.

Conclusion: Though a governmental agency, SEWRPC is tucked away from the population centers of its region, spending public money with little accountability, citizen awareness or taxpayer participation.

The creation of a new urban regional planning commission would be good for Milwaukee; the removal of Milwaukee County’s big annual tax payment might put the brakes on new car spending for staff and some consultants, and bring about other belt-tightening.

A new commission, perhaps with additional jurisdictions, could team up with SEWRPC. That would redefine and expand regional cooperation and produce better, more inclusive results.

Planning can and should be energetic, proactive and trendsetting. It should welcome fresh ideas and formats – especially in these challenging times – and make new approaches work for the most people possible.

As constituted and managed, SEWRPC fails that test.

Chickens Coming Home To Roost: SEWRPC Leader Backs Highway Tolls

Philip Evenson - - executive director of our regional planning commission (SEWRPC) that supporters claim doesn't commit flagrant acts of advocacy - - told a transportation conference in Waukesha County Tuesday that Wisconsin needs to start collecting some road tolls.

This is not a surprise.

Evenson led the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission through a two-year study that produced a $6.5 billion freeway reconstruction and expansion plan - - but did not recommend a financing mechanism to pay for it.

The study's final report, chapter seven, says the financing is up to the state.

In other words, SEWRPC suggested spending billions over several decades, but said, in effect: 'Financing? Not our problem.'

So the state is forging ahead with a $1.9 billion spending commitment on the not-so-congested I-94 corridor from Milwaukee to Illinois, and has moved up the $400 million or so Zoo Interchange rebuilding, too - - but still can't say where the money is coming from.

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist was a member of the freeway study's advisory committee, said at the time the SEWRPC recommendations were flawed because they did not include a financing plan, and voted against it.

Regional and state planners routinely recommend more highway projects than Wisconsin can finance with gas taxes, licensing fees and income tax revenues.

The gap has been as much as $5 billion in recent years, and now that driving is declining, and more-efficient engines are burning less fuel, the road-builders and their allies grasp that state gas tax collections are even less able now to sustain their concrete-and-new-lane building-binge.

Tolls can serve as a mechanism to directly fund transit, or move people towards transit alternatives, but in the Milwaukee area, that means to an already-failing Milwaukee County bus system, or your bike.

I was foolishly hoping that SEWRPC would react to spiking gasoline prices by proposing and planning for transit expansion now, and would also pull back its multi-billion dollar freeway plan that includes 120 miles of new lanes across seven southeastern Wisconsin counties.

SEWRPC should be rethinking the wisdom and sustainability of the exurban sprawl model that its highway and related plans have enabled in this region.

Instead, the agency is going in the opposite direction - - more roads and more capacity - - paid for by taxpayers who would then be asked to pay again to use them through a toll collection system.

Evenson says we need the will in Wisconsin to start charging tolls.

That may play well to the road-builders and assorted Waukesha business leaders who gathered to hear the discussion, but I doubt legislators in either party will come around to a "Be More Like Illinois" motto.

They know if they were to support it, the electoral bell would toll for them.

Another prediction: SEWRPC, perhaps with the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation that took part in the Waukesha conference will announce a study to examine, merely explore, from an objective perspective, the value of road tolling.

To which Milwaukee County should not pay one thin dime, because Evenson has tipped SEWRPC's hand.

Ironically, Evenson is helping make the case that Milwaukee should get the heck out of SEWRPC and put its regional planning property tax money into studies and recommendations that better serve an urban population that needs more transit.

Laurel Walker, As Usual, Is A Must-Read

The Journal Sentinel's Waukesha columnist, Laurel Walker, is a journalistic gem known to tweak the suburbs and the conventional wisdom there.

In this definite classic, Walker today moves from George Carlin to the Milwaukee 7 to seven unassailable truths about her Waukesha world.

Don't miss it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Presidential Politics And Sewage Treatment

I am flush with anticipation. Let flow the puns.

ExxonMobil Fights For 20 Years, Wins Big at Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court hands ExxonMobil a $2 billion victory; the losers are individuals like fishing boat owners and class-action plaintiffs trying to recover income from the company's infamous oil tanker spill off Alaska in 1989.

Scientists have found that the after-effects have lingered longer than once thought.

The company's website delivers this with a straight face on its website:

"We are committed to meeting the world's growing demand for energy in an economically, environmentally and socially responsible manner."

The Road To Sprawlville, Chapter XVII, "Gas Station Blues"

This, the 17th chapter in an occassional blog series, "The Road To Sprawlville," originates with a story in The New York Times, where one of their western correspondents finds sprawl it in the Denver area - - and having driven through there in the spring of 2006, I can personally say the sprawl developments were jaw-dropping.

Of course, we've got our own Wisconsin examples close by, don't we?

Like Pabst Farms out on 1,500 acres of former farm and prized regional aquifer recharge land in Western Waukesha County.

And other developments throughout Waukesha and other surrounding counties, where homes and subdivisons seem to have fallen out of the sky.

The same goes for subdivisions far out in Dane County, from which commuters poke along on crowded highways to get to their jobs at the State Capitol or the UW-Madison campus.

With gasoline topping $4-a-gallon, Sprawlville is looking far less reasonable, affordable and sustainable than downtown condos or older urban neighborhoods, where you can walk to work, the coffee shop and a theater, too.

One of the silver linings in the gloom over high energy prices and housing woes is that cities will look more attractive, especially to first-time home-buyers.

Regrettably, planners at both the state and regional levels are still forging ahead with billions in new highway construction, while what the public needs is urban and commuter rail.

The executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission even suggested earlier this week that we keep this road-building binge flush with cash through toll collections.

My guess is that still won't save Sprawlville, but will take more money out of motorists pockets.

Compact Implementation Bill In Michigan Falls Short

The State of Michigan's legislature finally passed its Great Lakes Compact legislation, so when Gov. Jennifer Granholm inks her signature, Michigan will become the seventh of the eight Great Lakes states to approve the Compact.

All in all, this is a good thing, with the Compact moving one step closer to Congressional approval, and a new level of protection against wholesale diversions.

But noted activist and writer Dave Dempsey describes the shortcomings in Michigan's compromised Compact implementing bill, as business interests hung tough and won some victories during weeks of negotiations.

Nearly the entire state is within the Great Lakes basin, thus industry fought hard to preserve access to supplies with few controls.

Nestle exports water from a wetlands in the state under the phony-baloney "Ice Mountain," and as long as the containers do not exceed 5.7 gallons, the bottle-by-bottle diversion is unlimited.

It's a serious loophole, permitted by the Compact, a flaw that dates back to Michigan's insistence it be included in the Compact's final draft produced by the region's governors and Canadian premiers in 2005.

Environmental and political leaders from both parties in Michigan were also looking for stronger language in the implementing bill to clarify the Public Trust doctrine's protection of Michigan waters.

The doctrine originated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, prior to statehood, when water rights for all were crucial to commerce, transport and the sustaining of life - - as is certainly the case today.

Wisconsin incorporates the doctrine into its state constitution, and the law and the principle needs to be fought for and protected with every violation, whether it's access to Lake Michigan behind the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee that is closed during festivals, to the city's riverwalk in downtown Fort Atkinson, where anglers have been shooed off a key stretch for the convenience of new Rock River condo owners.

Fact is - - entrenched industries routinely get served by legislatures, whether for access to water or a thousand other special-interest considerations.

In Wisconsin, the Compact implementing bill approved here made sure, for example, that Lake Superior water would be legally available should Murphy Oil need its projected five million gallons of water daily to operate an expanded refinery in Superior.

So while Michigan adopted a Compact implementing bill that still gives industries too much poorly-regulated access to Great Lakes water, let's not get too high and mighty and attack our neighbor to east.

Wisconsin cut its own deals to keep hometown businesses happy.

About Energy Independence, And Interdependence

Writer and thinker Dennis Phillips offers Parts I and II of a very provocative essay on US and world energy policies.

And the site carrying Phillips' work is a trove of inspired work.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pressure Will Build For Great Lakes Oil, Gas Exploration

This column from the Chicago Tribune is an indicator.

Timely Op-Ed About The Value of Wetlands

Those recent heavy rains would have produced less flooding if fewer acres of wetlands have been lost to 'development,' whether wider highways, subdivision streets or commercial businesses' parking lots.

A fine op-ed from the Wisconsin Wetlands Association makes the case.

NASA Climate Expert Wants Oil Company Leaders Punished

James Hansen, top NASA climatologist and political target of the Bush administration, returns the favor by urging prosecution of oil executives for spreading disinformation about fossil fuel emissions and climate change.

Hansen favors heavy investments in non-polluting, alternative power sources to directly address climate change.

Hat tip to an excellent source.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Franklin Blogger Digs Deeper Into SEWRPC Flaws

Metro Milwaukee Today continues to closely examine SEWRPC and call for change from a suburban viewpoint south of the freeway.

On The Loss Of Terry Gillick

Milwaukee lost one of the really good guys yesterday when Terry Gillick died suddenly at his west side home.

A native son, Terry had had a long career at UWM handling media and marketing relations.

I knew him less through his work and more as a pal at the Downtown YMCA, where he was an evening regular with those of us trying to ward off the hazards of aging.

He was an hilarious storyteller and a font of information, and wry observation, about people and politics.

Emails from Terry routinely came with a verse from Dylan or Springsteen. He was generous and engaging and always upbeat; it's unimaginable that he's so suddenly gone.

My family offers our deepest sympathy to his wife, Terry Perry, their children and large extended families, and networks of friends and colleagues.

What a loss.

Letter Writers Call Out SEWRPC

The Journal Sentinel's Sunday Crossroads section carries a brace of letters on the growing debate about SEWRPC's value to the City of Milwaukee. Most writers agree that the agency is a bad deal for Milwaukee.

Here is a link to the letters.

I'm glad to see the ratio of letters, and even more happy with the discourse.

SEWRPC - - with its obfuscatory acronym, inaccessible Pewaukee location, and similarly remote website, publications and processes - - has been little known to the general public, but certainly less so these days.

SEWRPC is a 100% taxpayer-financed public agency authorized by the state legislature.

It spends millions of public dollars annually, and as I argued in the Crossroads piece of June 8th that got this discussion going, those dollars are often spent in ways that undervalue Milwaukee, a big city's needs and the best way to consider those needs in a regional context.

Without votes on the SEWRPC board, city property taxpayers this current year who sent more than $400,000 to SEWRPC - - a larger contribution than made by five of SEWRPC's seven entire counties - - are taxed without being represented.

None of the senior, so-called SEWRPC "core staff" are minorities, or even live in the City of Milwaukee, SEWRPC records indicate, thus perpetuating an anti-city, pro-suburban/exurban orientation in the commission's workforce, hence its management and its work products.

Look no farther than its failure to start, let alone study and publish, a recommended housing plan for the region since 1975.

Or the fact that more highway lanes are being designed for the region with SEWRPC's encouragement, but transit in the same region is shrinking even as gas prices spike.

Or that of 32 people on the important SEWRPC water supply advisory committee, where hefty recommendations are coming for Lake Michigan diversions that will push sprawl farther from Milwaukee - - along the widened highway corridors that are often transit-free - - there is but one City of Milwaukee representative, and no people of color, and none representing low-income citizens or communities from which employment might depart and follow the fresh supply of Lake Michigan water.

SEWRPC has been around since 1960, so I think it's time for basic changes there - - and that needs to begin with a restructuring of either the board makeup, or of the commission itself - - to give meaningful voice and fair value to City of Milwaukee residents, priorities and tax dollars.

I appreciated the Journal Sentinel publishing my June 8th op-ed, and the letters chosen June 22nd - - make sure you read Patricia McManus' letter that ties it all up as the last of the letters published - - indicate that I am not the only one in these parts who thinks SEWRPC is a bad deal for Milwaukee.

(Numerous posts on this blog about SEWRPC are available through the search box at the upper left. Just enter SEWRPC.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Call Me An "Urbanist," Call Me "Milwaukee-Centric" - - It's All Good

In the media and blogging back-and-forth over the worth of the regional planning commission (SEWRPC) to Milwaukee, I've been taken to task by critics and labeled "Milwaukee-centric" (The Freeman) and "urbanist" (Patrick McIlheran)

I take these as compliments.

It's good to be an urbanist: strong cities are hugely beneficial to the economy and the environment.

And "Milwaukee-centric?"

You bet.

If only a little of that would rub off on the critics, and at SEWRPC.

Thomas Friedman On Bush's Addiction To Oil

Don't miss Thomas Friedman's biting column on President Bush's "lame" excuse for an energy policy - - here.

SEWRPC's Narrow Self-Definition

Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy the other day observed that SEWRPC - - the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission - - represents land, not people.

His dead-on remark was an explanation about why SEWRPC's 21-member board of commissioners has three representatives from each of SEWRPC's seven counties, but none from the City of Milwaukee, even though Milwaukee's population exceeds the individual populations of the six, non-Milwaukee Counties.

And I agree with Murphy that it helps explain why SEWRPC endorses highway expansion that is unfolding in the region to the tune of 120 miles of new lanes.

This is why I have been saying for some time that Milwaukee is in a taxation-without-representation circumstance, since City of Milwaukee residents also pay through a property tax levy for SEWRPC an annual share of SEWRPC's operating budget that exceeds the individual payments from five of the other counties, too.

Here is another illustration of SEWRPC's focus on land, rather than people.

Compare the purposes of a regional planning commission's activities in the state stature that created them - - 66.0309 - - with the purpose for that SEWRPC puts at the opening of its homepage at

To further my point, I am bold-facing broad 'people issues' that the statute says are focus of regional planning in Wisconsin with the language that SEWRPC chooses.

The State Statute:

66.0309(10) (10) Adoption of master plan for region. The master plan shall be made with the general purpose of guiding and accomplishing a coordinated, adjusted and harmonious development of the region which will, in accordance with existing and future needs, best promote public health, safety, morals, order, convenience, prosperity or the general welfare, as well as efficiency and economy in the process of development. The regional planning commission may adopt the master plan as a whole by a single resolution, or, as the work of making the whole master plan progresses, may by resolution adopt a part or parts of the master plan, any part to correspond with one or more of the elements specified in s. 66.1001. The resolution shall refer expressly to the maps, plats, charts, programs and descriptive and explanatory matter, and other matters intended by the regional planning commission to form the whole or any part of the plan, and the action taken shall be recorded on the adopted plan or part of the adopted plan by the identifying signature of the chairperson of the regional planning commission and a copy of the plan or part of the adopted plan shall be certified to the legislative bodies of the local governmental units within the region. The purpose and effect of adoption of the master plan shall be solely to aid the regional planning commission and the local governments and local government officials comprising the region in the performance of their functions and duties.

SEWRPC Home Page:

About the Commission

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) was established in 1960 as the official areawide planning agency for the highly urbanized southeastern region of the State. The Commission serves the seven counties of Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington, and Waukesha.

The Commission was created to provide the basic information and planning services necessary to solve problems which transcend the corporate boundaries and fiscal capabilities of the local units of government comprising the Southeastern Wisconsin Region.

Regional planning provides a meaningful technical approach to the proper planning and design of public works systems, such as:
Water Supply
Park and Open Space Facilities

A regional approach is also essential for addressing environmental issues, including:
Air and Water Pollution
Natural Resource Base Deterioration
Changing Land Use

Think about the difference.

SEWRPC says it focuses on public works and government limitations.

If it had more of a people perspective, it would have more everyday citizens on its advisory committees, giving them credit in SEWRPC's planning for their everyday experiences, and SEWRPC would have advisory committees working on issues like affordable housing, which it has not studied for 1975.

Or why it has finally begun to address the absence of low-income participants from its work - - but only with the creation of an Environmental Justice Task Force that is not a full-fledged advisory committee and is barely plugged into the work of the other SEWRPC committees.

I am sure that SEWRPC considers all its work to be on behalf of people, but the way it goes about it keeps many people away from the table.

Waukesha Freeman Backs SEWRPC

The Freeman, Waukesha's daily paper, published an editorial on June 19th backing the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) and dismissing any suggestion there is room for improvement or reform in the agency's structure or operations.

No surprise there. It will play well in Waukesha County, where SEWRPC and its leadership live and work, and will not play well in Milwaukee.

As several of us in the Milwaukee-centric" camp keep noting, City of Milwaukee taxpayers send more money to SEWRPC for annual operations than do five of SEWRPC's seven counties.

For Waukesha and the other counties, Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee are cash cows for SEWPRC.

The more we realize that it's a bad deal for us, and the more we are told the opposite by SEWRPC and its Waukesha beneficiaries, the more frequent will be the calls from Milwaukee for structural and policy changes at the agency.

Here is the editorial's text.


Planners deserve questions - but not of worth
By Freeman editorial board
June 19, 2008

After a flash of opinions and calls-to-arms that have likely received too much validity, some Milwaukee aldermen are questioning the worth of staying with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Their argument, shared by some others in the Milwaukee-centric camp, is that the nearly 50-year-old organization doesn’t pay heed to the clout of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County in relation to the six other counties it serves.

Not just cutting off the nose to spite the face: Without Milwaukee’s involvement, it would be like lopping the head off a body of knowledge for the region.

Milwaukee is clearly the center of the region and gets due attention. However, it can’t thrive without counties like Waukesha, where many of its workers and financial backers live.

Although there are definite differences between the counties - Highway 83 in the town of Genesee would never be mistaken for National Avenue in Milwaukee - there is a vested interest to explore every avenue of benefit.

A prime resource is found in SEWRPC (the location of which in City of Pewaukee is purely arbitrary).

County supervisors here debated the worth of staying with the planners last year, though took no action. And we have wondered what level of attention Waukesha County gets in relation to its down payment that ranks second only to Milwaukee County.

But ultimately the planning organization gives the region resources, options and a historical perspective that might otherwise come at a premium.

A few positive recent examples are its two-year water study in relation to accessing Great Lakes water, research into a rural and metropolitan Wi-Fi system and assistance to Pewaukee and City of Pewaukee during its oft-reviewed merger discussions.

Others - notably, the push for an expensive light-rail system that might alleviate nothing but taxpayers of some more money - are not viable for the county. Though its ranks do make a case for that option sometime in the future, playing particularly in Milwaukee’s favor.

At least the planning group offers informed, documented choices. It’s something Milwaukee leaders should aim for instead of relying on fast talk and advisory measures that would cut ties and cut down SEWRPC.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Riverwest Network News Posts Full Coverage of SEWRPC Controversy

Riverwest Network News has a nicely coordinated and linked-filled summary of multiple newspaper and blog postings about the ongoing controversy regarding SEWRPC, here.

WEAL Turns 30, Party in Muskego Saturday

The Waukesha Environmental Action League celebrates 30 years of land preservation and resource conservation Saturday.

WEAL deserves congratulations for hard environmental work in a sometimes-hard environment.

The party is in Muskego, with details here.

Racine Area Legislators Working On Tougher Drunk Driving Laws

I especially like State Sen. John Lehman's (D-Racine) focus on 1st and 2nd offenses. Wisconsin's law is especially weak there.

Portland's Elected Regional Government Is Part Of June 25th Conference In Milwaukee

And its work in regional cooperation will be a focus of a timely, public conference at Marquette University Wednesday, June 25th.

Bad Weather Wiped Out 80% Of Door County's Cherries

Don't head for Door County to go cherry picking this year. Weather woes knocked out most of the crop.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Water Bottlers Look For A Free Ride In Great Lakes Compact Bills

Dave Dempsey reminds us that water bottlers will be able to divert Great Lakes water to faraway users while pipelines are much more restricted.

This hypocrisy undermines the Compact and Great Lakes sustainability, and is a loophole that, to date, none of the Great Lakes states care to close.

Butts Galore: Smokers Make The World Their Ashtray

An effort to keep cigarette butts off the Lake Michigan beaches in Chicago allows the Chicago Tribune to look at the stinky, toxic mess worldwide.

Another reason to ban smoking, period.

About SEWRPC: More Reaction, More Discussion

Yesterday's Freeman carried a news story defending SEWRPC and quoting various folks predicting doom and gloom for Waukesha County should Milwaukee County or City leave the seven-county planning agency.

(When I posted this, I did not have the URL or full text, but the Freeman has kindly supplied the text and I have copied it in full, at the bottom.)

It's fascinating to me that there is concern about the damage some say would occur if Milwaukee County used its $800,000+ annual property tax donation to SEWRPC to fund a more urban-friendly planning agency.

What Milwaukee would gain, and what is absent from the Waukesha/SEWRPC perspective, is valuable control over transit planning and other related items that take a back seat now to SEWRPC's suburban and exurban structure and priorities.

As I have said repeatedly, why does the discussion of regionalism have to take place within the framework and language and repeated outcomes that we have now - - the status quo - - and not use any new language or consider new or different formats that could achieve the same ends, but that change the rules and players of the game.

How about Milwaukee as a genuine partner in planning, not as a checking account?

You can contort yourself into knots and turn blue in the face defending SEWRPC, but you cannot get past these facts which grate on city dwellers in Milwaukee:

With a population of 600,000, and more residents than any of the non-Milwaukee County counties in SEWRPC - - all of which have three SEWRPC board seats, the City of Milwaukee has no seat at the table.

Despite having the largest share of minority residents in the region, SEWRPC has no minority core staff members, and has not had minority core staff for years.

There isn't even a core staff member with a City of Milwaukee address.

And minorities are excluded from SEWRPC's powerful advisory committees. There are zero African-Americans, and only one City representative, on the 32-member water supply advisory committee.

This is 2008. The US Civil Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to end this sort of institutional discrimination more than 40 years ago.

How is that SEWRPC is immune, tone-deaf, care-free and thoughtless when it comes to basic operations like hiring?

Yet the City of Milwaukee, where more than half the population is now minority, is responsible for sending SEWRPC about $400,000 annually in recent years as its portion of Milwaukee County's contribution to SEWRPC's operating budget.

I don't think SEWRPC practices affirmative action. This is beyond benign neglect. There's no action, there. There's nothing affirmative.

Milwaukee gets taxation without representation, spending without accountability, planning without participation.

It's long past due that Milwaukee get itself out of SEWRPC.

Big money is being taken annually by commissioners and spent by managers from Milwaukee who cast a blind eye towards Milwaukee's housing, employment and transportation needs.

Enough is enough.

Final thought:

I'll bet there is more than a handful of Waukesha County residents who look at the $600,000+ annually that they ship off to SEWRPC, then look at their own city and county staffs, and wonder just what the heck they are getting for all the overlap.

Freeman text:

Without Milwaukee, SEWRPC in doubt
Waukesha leaders unhappy with metro push to leave

By JOE PETRIE Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA ­With several Milwaukee aldermen beginning a push for the city to leave the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the future of the commission and regional initiatives could be left in doubt.

Because the commission is set up to meet the needs of the metro Milwaukee area, the absence of Milwaukee County would cause problems with obtaining federal money and serving the needs of the entire region, SEWRPC andWaukesha leaders said Wednesday.

And though the resolution by the Milwaukee aldermen is advisory, leaders in the planning group and from Waukesha are taking it very seriously.

"We're very concerned because the community is very important to us," said Phil Evenson, executive director of SEWRPC. "If they left, it would have the potential to destroy the commission."

Milwaukee Aldermen Bob Bauman, Jim Bohl and Nik Kovac introduced theresolution after former Milwaukee mayoral aide Jim Rowen publicly questioned the commission's need to exist in Milwaukee. In the resolution, the aldermen raise numerous grievances such as an underrepresentation on the SEWRPCboard, favoritism by the commission for suburban communities and the fact that the commission offices are in Pewaukee.

In the resolution, they describe it as "a classic example of taxation without representation."

Last year, several Waukesha County supervisors complained about SEWRPC and made threats to leave the commission as well, but no further action was ever taken.

SEWRPC provides long-term community water, transit and land use plans for municipalities in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Kenosha, Washington, Ozaukeeand Walworth counties. However, the majority of the $2.5 million in municipal funding to the organization comes from Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, at $845,525 and $657,675, respectively.

Evenson said he would not speculate if Waukesha's share would change if Milwaukee were to leave the commission. But without that Milwaukee money, Evenson said it would make SEWRPC's job much more difficult.

For example, he said planning for regional transit has decrees from the Federal Transit Commission where his group must include the metro Milwaukee area and Milwaukee County.

Waukesha County Board Chairman Jim Dwyer, who serves on the SEWRPC board, said he doesn't believe the grievances raised by Milwaukee are completely accurate.

If Milwaukee left the commission, the ramifications would be felt in Waukesha County because the state's largest city is important in planning and politics for Waukesha. "There would be problems anytime a key member left an organization, Dwyersaid. "Hopefully it can be resolved soon."

Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas agreed that it wouldn't be beneficial to either county if Milwaukee chose to leave the commission and hopes that leaders there realize that while SEWRPC may not be perfect, it's veryimportant.

While Vrakas and other leaders in the area have been working on regionalization efforts for transit and water, he said the resolution could also have the potential to erect barriers leaders have just worked to teardown.

"The city isn't a region onto itself," Vrakas said. "But some people still feel that way and it's just not productive."

(Joe Petrie can be reached at

SEWRPC: Advisor, Or Advocate?

Defenders of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission are fond of repeating the agency's claim that it gives advice and doesn't veer into advocacy.

Patrick McIlheran of the Journal Sentinel trotted that out the other day, and I argued in response that an agency like SEWPRC moves beyond advice to advocacy everytime it chooses to study one issue over another, commits its resources, writes an agenda, selects a committee, hires staff, picks consultants and produces studies, plans and other documents.

And that helps explain why SEWRPC's work products have been pro-suburban and pro-highway expansion - - with housing, transit and other more urban priorities getting the short end of the stick out at SEWRPC's exurban Pewaukee offices. this context, let's consider this letter from SEWRPC chairman Thomas H. Buestrin to Gov. James Doyle, dated January 27, 2003.

You decide if his are the words of an advisor, or an advocate.

I'll set the scene: In January, 2003, SEWRPC's freeway expansion study was essentially finished, and would be formally wrapped up at the commission in a few months. Public comments had run against the study's proposed new 127 miles of traffic lanes, with commenters often suggesting transit additions instead of bigger highways.

To counteract those comments, SEWRPC commissioned a public opinion survey with questions designed to elicit pro-freeway responses.

The freeway project's first phase, rebuilding and expanding the Marquette Interchange, would begin in 2004, with the City of Milwaukee trying to convince the state to reduce the scale and cost of the project.

Buestrin is a long-serving SEWRPC commissioner from Ozaukee County, according to the SEWRPC website.

(SEWRPC does not offer comprehensive biographical information about its commissioners on the agency website. It notes that Buestrin has served for nearly 30 years, in two lengthy stints, dating to 1970. Googling Buestrin, I read that he is on the board of Bank Mutual Corporation, Brown Deer, which operates banks in Wisconsin. The Bank Mutual Corporation 2008 proxy statement has this description of director Buestrin:

"President of Buestrin, Allen & Associates Ltd., real estate investment, management and development."

Wrote Buestrin to Doyle:

"I am writing to express the Commission's support for the reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange as proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). The Department's proposal fulfills the promise of ensuring a truly modern, efficient interchange that will be required to serve the greater Milwaukee area and, indeed, the entire State for the next 50 years. Other proposals recently advanced fall short of fulfilling that promise.

"The Commission has worked closely with the WisDOT for many years, providing the vital transportation systems planning that precedes detailed engineering work by the Department. Our work has consistently found a compelling need to accomplish design improvements as our freeways are rebuilt over the next 25 to 30 years, including the elimination of left-hand turning movements at freeway-to-freeway interchanges, the minimization of lane drops at such interchanges, and the reduction of sharp curves on freeway interchange ramps that impede traffic flow and contribute to traffic accidents. The WisDOT design recommendations for the Marquette Interchange would achieve all of these objectives. The Marquette Interchange proposal has been recommended by the Commission's Freeway Study Advisory Committee which consists of a broad mix of public and private sector leaders from throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Moreover, our public opinion surveys indicate strong support for "doing it right" as we make critical freeway rebuild decisions in the coming years.

"We understand that the present financial situation is a very difficult one. As we begin to rebuild the southeastern Wisconsin freeway system, however, we need to be forward looking and ensure that the investments made over the next few years serve the Region and the State well for many years to come.

"Thank you for your consideration in this manner.

"Very truly yours,

"Thomas H. Buestrin

Advice, or advocacy?

Oddly, says McIlheran, in yet another furious bit of keyboarding aimed at me on his blog, it's both.

The tirade tracks poorly. He alleges some people want to make some planning outcomes illegal.

And McIlheran only gives his readers a portion of the large second paragraph in Buestrin's letter, and none of graphs one, three, and the forth, which is only a single line in closing.

I reprinted Buestrin's entire text, so nothing is taken out of context.

McIlheran stooped to spin wrapped around some selective quotes.

I'd expected better

But back to Buestrin's letter.

Let's put it this way: if the Chairman of SEWRPC ever wrote a letter to the Governor about why the state should spend $6.3 billion modernizing and expanding transit in this region - - in a plan that didn't set money aside for highway upgrades or new lanes - - you could honestly say: "Wow: SEWRPC is run by a real transit advocate!"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dane County Rolling Towards Commuter Rail

The Madison area is moving towards commuter rail.

It would not surprise me if trains start rolling there before they do in the Milwaukee area.

Sign Of The Times: Hummer Dealership Switching To Used Cars

If you think of used cars as a form of recycling, turning a Hummer Dealership into a used car sales operation is something of a Win-Win-Win.

Patrick McIlheran Goes Off The Rails

It's hard to make sense of this McIlheran screed.

It's got more spin in it than a carton of hula-hoops and more mischaracterizations than what Fox network cable news serves up in a 24-hour cycle.

I started to answer it point-by-point, but I read it again, and I decided against it because it's barely coherent.

You can do better than that, Patrick.

SEWRPC Said Freeways Now, Alternatives Later, Documents Show

As the state is preparing to begin a $1.9 billion reconstruction and widening of I-94 south from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line, without a parallel commuter train component or other scheduled and budgeted transit innovations, keep this in mind if you wonder why:

When the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) finished writing the $6.3 billion regional freeway reconstruction and expansion plan in 2002 that it forwarded for implementation to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation - - the plan that includes the upcoming, record-setting highway expenditure - - SEWRPC could have written a more comprehensive and balanced transportation plan for the region instead.

It chose not to write such a plan, according to documents SEWRPC's own records.

Bear with me here: I'll point you to several letters and documents in a lengthy but accessible SEWRPC pdf that is well worth the downloads.

SEWRPC rolled out its freeway plan in 2002, after a long, million-dollar study paid for by WisDOT, that called for 127 miles of new lanes across its seven-county region.

It then took comments and held a series of public hearings, where testimony ran against a regional transportation plan costing so much money, and taking so much land, over so many years without being balanced with better transit and other so-called "freeway-related" improvements.

SEWRPC compiled the hearing record, and on its website,, has archived every written comment it received.

Give the agency for being thorough.

I'm going to reference several comments and documents in the archive because they offer deep insight and hard evidence into how and why we have ended up with a multi-billion-dollar-freeway-only plan now unfolding just as spiking gas prices are both tamping down driving and raising the demand for transit.

The written comments are archived as Appendix C.

Sometimes the file takes a while to load, as it is lengthy, and watch the pagination.

On p. 121 of the comment archive, a May 20, 2002 letter from Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist to SEWRPC Executive Director Philip Evenson is posted.

Norquist says he has read, (and submits with his letter), a WisDOT document dated September 8, 1998, that is entitled "Proposal to foster a public dialogue leading to a regional consensus on implementable freeway-related improvements in Southeastern Wisconsin."

(I am struck in that title by the words "dialogue...consensus..freeway-related improvements." For a WisDOT document title and orientation, WOW!)

Norquist goes on to note that the six-page WisDOT document says, among other things, that planning for transportation in the region and achieving a consensus on that plan will "require addressing freeway-related items such as multimodal transportation, ITS (intelligent transportation systems), land use controls, demand management, as well as freeway capacity, design, and operation."

"Multimodal" is jargon for rail, bike paths, even sidewalks, along with roads and highways. We have a new multimodal station downtown, where buses and Amtrak converge, for example.

"Demand management" is more jargon for pricing tools that can influence driving decisions, such as tolls, parking fees, discounted bus passes, or ride coupons handed out by employers, to encourage transit use, and so forth.

Both multimodal investments and demand management tools can reduce the need for more freeways.

In other words, the document was pointing to integrated transportation options, with freeways and other non-freeway items, planned for and scheduled comprehensively together, to spark a dialogue and win a consensus from disparate interests.

This came on the heels of an earlier WisDOT initiative to blend freeway expansion and light rail that was vetoed by then Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley, leading to the current bi-county transportation stalemate and the evaporation of many millions of dollars in regional transit funding.

Anyway...Norquist goes on in his letter to ask Evenson why those many alternatives have been omitted in favor of freeway construction and expansion only.

Norquist notes that elsewhere in the WisDOT document the extensive list of the "elements" of "a surface transportation system:"

"...freeways, principle arterial streets and highways, minor arterial streets and highways, collectors, and access roads; and the public transit system such as inter-city buses, commuter buses, express buses and local buses, Amtrak, commuter rail, light rail, and street cars," according to the WisDOT document."

The WisDOT document then appears in full in the archive, as Norquist submitted it for the record.

Evenson's May 23, 2002 letter in response follows Norquist's letter and document.

The SEWRPC Executive Director respectfully tells Norquist that SEWRPC disagrees with the Mayor's interpretation of what the WisDOT document says.

And then we get to the heart of the problem when it comes to the one-dimensional highway-heavy transportation planning and implementation we have in this region:

Evenson tells Norquist that what SEWRPC has acknowledged in its study, as Evenson says SEWRPC does routinely, is that all the transportation elements are put on the table, and in regional transportation system plans - - but in the case at hand, SEWRPC, with WisDOT as its client, is focusing on "a subelement of the broad multi-modal transportation system," while recognizing the "anticipated contributions of the other elements..."

"Issues related to freeway reconstruction, including multi-modal transportation, land use controls, and demand management were to be addressed in the study, but were to remain in the "background" relative to the primary focus of the study, which was to be freeway design and capacity (see page 1 of the WisDOT document)," Evenson writes.

Then at p. 127 in the same archive, another amazing document appears.

It's a letter submitted by Michael Maierle, the City of Milwaukee's Long Range Planning Manager in the Department of City Development.

(Full disclosure: I also submitted a formal comment to the SEWRPC hearing process that appears on pps. 126-7, as a June 7th, 2002 letter. As a former Norquist staffer, I knew Michael Maierle, too. But for a couple of years prior to the SEWRPC hearing I had been working on the 2000 census for Norquist in the city's Department of Administration as Deputy Director, and hadn't seen these documents until yesterday. In fact, I had forgotten that I had even submitted a comment.)

Anyway, in his letter, Maierle brings up and submits the same WisDOT document - - and here is the stunner:

Maierle says when he worked some years earlier for WisDOT he was the transportation planning document's author!

"It is disturbing," writes Maierle to SEWRPC, "that the Commission chose to ignore this proposal for a balanced approach to regional transportation, and, instead, focused all their energy and public resources on a plan that is limited to freeway expansion."

I do not see in the archive a response to Maierle's letter.

Mark Belling, Master Of Mean

Mark Belling says that people who ride the bus are "one of the fringe."

And that transit is "a cult;" building more is "moronic."

Let's see - - those cultish, moronic fringe folks would be people under 16, school children, people who don't own cars or who choose not to operate them, along with many senior citizens, and so forth.

In a city like Milwaukee, that's a large percentage of the population.

I guess Mark doesn't stand up for them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Michigan Water Activist Calls Out His Homestate's Performance

Well said, and gutsy, Andy Guy.

Check out his GreatLakesGuy blog, too.

Dallas Expanding Its City Rail Lines

Ah, Dallas - - where former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist used to joke there were more right-wing radio talk show hosts than our fair city - - Dallas, like so many other US cities large and small, is expanding its city rail system.

Ever what it is about Milwaukee and our 'region' that is so hostile to trolleys and light rail?

Metro Milwaukee Today Blog Sees Through SEWRPC

More bloggers, weighing in, on the SEWRPC discussion.

Many thanks, Metro Milwaukee Today, and blogger Greg Kowalski.

The more, the better, because raising awareness of what SEWRPC is, where they are, what they do and why is long overdue in these parts.

And the issued raised in MMT about the Chicago area's newly-reconstituted planning commission is right on the money.

In March, I posted a comparison of the Chicago effort, and its website, to SEWRPC.

That group puts SEWRPC to shame.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

McIlheran Misses The Point

In-house Journal Sentinel conservative columnist Patrick McIlheran comes to the defense of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, but flunks Politics 101.

He opines that SEWRPC is merely advisory, but SEWRPC does more than offer advice.

It goes a long way towards setting the development direction and agendas in a seven-county region. In politics, whomever sets the agenda holds sway over the process and the outcome.

SEWRPC appoints its working committees, hires and directs consultants, establishes the ground rules and parameters for discussion and analysis and selects lists of alternatives from which the preferred option is selected.

All of which again and again helps create outcomes that play out across the region.

That's how power is created and exercised. It's a heckuva lot more than offering advice.

SEWRPC also enjoys a key federal designation that gives it added power when it comes to major highway construction, thus freeway expansion in the region could not proceeg without SEWRPC's stamp of approval.

That's more than offering mere advice to the state because SEWRPC's freeway expansion and reconstruction study will result in 120 miles of new highway lanes, along with development that reinforce suburban sprawl, speeds farmland conversion and starves transit of transportation department funding.

And SEWRPC exercises power, and has impact, when it chooses not to put an item on its agendas and calendars, like housing in the region.

No study since 1975.

McIlheran says people like me want a planning body that is a governmental boss.

Say what?

What I argued for was equity in SEWRPC's governance for, as he labels us, "urbanists," for taxation with representation.

Leaving the City of Milwaukee off the SEWRPC board is a genuine weakness, though that was done by state statute. Maybe that can be changed with an amendment.

A better idea is a new commission with Milwaukee city or county at its core.

After 48 years of taxation without representation for urbanists, I'd say it's high time.

Failing to hire minority staff - - in fact, any seniot staff from Milwaukee - - or to orient planning agendas or attention towards Milwaukee and its minority population are self-inflicted wounds by SEWRPC's managers.

And continuing to spend urbanists' money without their input is a rip-off.

Will Local Flooding Make Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner Any More Compassionate

Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner took a hard line when it came to some Katrina aid after the hurricane and devastating levee breaks in New Orleans, as Xoff had nicely summarized it.

I wonder if similar devastation - - but mercifully far, far fewer deaths - - in communities right in his Congressional district will soften his heart?

Aldermen Propose Milwaukee County Withdrawal From SEWRPC

The Small Business Times has the story.

Later update: new Ald. Nik Kovac becomes the third co-sponsor.

Gettin' interesting.

5th OWI Leads To A Death, Then Prison

Another sad ending to a fatal OWI episode, the driver's 5th.

In alcohol-enabling Wisconsin, the 4th OWI conviction is still a misdemeanor.

Tougher earlier sentencing and other state interventions could have made this tragedy less likely.

While people continue to suffer, legislators are out fiddling on the campaign trail.

Bruce Murphy Weighs In On The SEWRPC Controversies

Milwaukee Magazine's editor Bruce Murphy has posted an item about governance and policy controversies surrounding the seven-county regional planning commission, SEWRPC.

It's a welcome item.

We're all finally getting to the bottom of what SEWRPC does, what it doesn't do, and most importantly, why it is what it is.

Murphy offers an interesting new line of analysis - - that there's a better chance of change eventually sweeping SEWRPC when Waukesha County residents get tired of subsidizing the smaller SEWRPC counties (right now, Milwaukee County pays the largest share of the SEWRPC operating budget, Waukesha County the second) that pay chickenfeed to the agency, but get the same three seats on the commission board.

And get access to SEWRPC data and activities essentially at a discount, with the freight being paid by the more populous counties - - Milwaukee and Waukesha.

The truth is that every SEWRPC function could be jobbed out to an existing municipal agency in the seven-county region: In Dane County, the regional planning commission gets its transportation planning from the City of Madison, so there are administrative savings and less duplication of effort.

If SEWRPC were genuinely independent, you could argue that there were reasons for maintaining an uberagency to take charge of dicey issues and offer solutions that were both fair and challenging.

But as Murphy points out, SEWRPC was laid out to represent land, not populations, and that has led to action on its plans for highway expansion, not urban transit, or housing or initiatives that have the City of Milwaukee as the highest priority.

Friday, June 20th Offers Multiple Iraq Peace Activities

Bill Christofferson brings us up to date on Iraq war Moratorium events this coming Friday, along with links to further information and donation opportunities.

Here are the details:

Friday, June 20, is Iraq Moratorium #10, a day to do something, alone or with others, to show that you want the war and occupation of Iraq to end.

Two events are planned in Milwaukee this week, 17 in Wisconsin, more than 100 across the country.

In Milwaukee, national peace and impeachment activist David Swanson speaks at 7 pm Thursday in Room 001, Cudahy Hall, 1313 W. Wisconsin Ave., on the Marquette campus. It's free. Parking in Wells Street ramp. Details and more about David Swanson here:

Friday is the usual Milwaukee vigil from 5 to 6 pm in the heart of downtown, Water and Wisconsin, with signs, flags, banners, theater, music and whatever else you choose to bring. Join us if you can. It will boost your spirits.

You'll find a complete list of Wisconsin events here:

And here's the national list:

If you can't do anything else, please consider giving a buck or two or more to keep the Moratorium growing. It's a shoestring operation that puts every dollar to immediate and effective use. Please be as generous as you can. Click here to donate:

Thanks for all you do in the cause of peace.

I-94 Flood Repair At Johnson Creek Is Best Use of WisDOT

Dealing with the transportation crisis on flooded I-94 lanes between Milwaukee and Madison to allow traffic again to pass through that critical area is exactly what transportation dollars and skills are for.

WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi ordered the emergency fix.

Fixing and maintaining the massive road system we already have should be the department's highest priority - - not adding new lanes at skyrocketing prices to relieve phantom congestion between south Milwaukee and the Illinois line.

Instead of Build It Now, the WisDOT practice and taxpayer demand should be Fix It First, as 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and others have long argued.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Regional Planning, Mired In Yesteryear, Does Not Include Re-Thinking The Language, Either

In an op-ed published June 8th in the Journal Sentinel's Crossroads section, I proposed that Milwaukee, either city or county, or both, use procedures in state law to pull out of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and to establish a separate commission patterned the regional planning structure for Madison and Dane County.

And I argued that kind of new arrangement would enhance regional cooperation around here by putting Milwaukee on a par with the other counties' populations.

Right now, the City of Milwaukee has no seats on the SEWRPC 21-member commission even though its 600,000+ residents exceed the total population combined in four of the seven SEWRPC counties.

A new commission could be a more equal partner in regional discussion and action, and address several levels of discrimination at SEWRPC.

I thought it was a good idea.

Others said it would cause the sky to fall.

Some defenders of the status quo, less disturbed by a commission where the city has no vote, are also having their way with the regional cooperation language, too.

They suggest that any change in how regionalism is defined, and implemented, are negatives.

A letter to the editor in today's Journal Sentinel from Julia Taylor, the executive director of the Great Milwaukee Committee, accuses me of undermining regional cooperation.

Said Taylor:

"However, the tired "city vs. suburbs" argument helps no one. Detraction that discourages regional growth, a larger view and collaboration is a backward step. We all must work together for Milwaukee and the region to grow and prosper."

So a new format for regionalism or a template for regional discussion is backward?

And a new commission comprised of one county and/or one large city working with a SEWRPC that is minus one county and city couldn't be collaborative?

Why not?

An editorial in yesterday's Journal Sentinel calls Milwaukee's "succession" from SEWRPC a "nuclear option."

That's overstating what I said, and what would occur, if a second planning body were created in this region.

The inclusion of seven counties in SEWRPC when it was created in 1960 was arbitrary.

There could have been any number of these counties roped into a planning commission: seven was no more a magic number than three or five or eight.

I'd argue that placing Walworth and some of the other heavily-rural counties in SEWRPC are only there so they can access regional services made more affordable by Milwaukee County's big annual property tax transfer.

Every year, Milwaukee County pays the largest share of SEWRPC's counties'-supported operating budget.

A new regional planning commission arrangement along the lines I suggested would put Milwaukee County and City on a more equal plane with the other counties in the SEWRPC region.

It would also allow this most-urban county in the region to focus on transportation and other relationships in northern Illinois and Chicago, rather than having its planning funds plan interstate highway ramps to the shopping mall at Pabst Farms, or 120 new freeway lanes throughout the region as currently defined.

I'd argue that genuine regional planning would constantly include studying and embracing changes in the very definition of "region," and "regionalism" and "regional planning" by the regional planners and their existing agency themselves.

The SEWRPC model does not work well in an artificially-designated region where the largest city, with the largest number of low-income residents, doesn't have a seat at a table managed by representatives of the more upper-income suburban and exurban counties.

A new structure - - with two parallel commissions and no net increase in spending - - could make Milwaukee a true regional partner, and as I argued in my op-ed, make the city, the county and the region(s) stronger.

More Evidence That WisDOT Is A Rogue Agency

Its plan to expand I-94 can't be justified - - that's WisDOT politics as usual.

But dissing a Governor's Task Force, exposed by Gretchen Schuldt - - that's taking WisDOT 'autonomy' to an entire new level.

Anti-Rail Consultant Hired To Study Regional Transit

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Larry Sandler brought readers something of a scoop Monday morning:

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has hired a known anti-rail California consultant, Thomas Rubin, to advise local officials and the private sector on regional transit problems and solutions.

Rubin likes to call light rail's benefits "myths."

As Sandler points out, the MMAC supports the proposed, and stalled commuter rail line known as the K-R-M that could serve Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee.

That's not a big contradiction, since commuter rail serves a different rider than light rail, which Rubin opposes.

Scoop update: Sandler reported later Monday that Rubin is suggesting expanded bus service, but with lower fares, something that County Executive Scott Walker opposes. The key graphs about this twist, are below:

"MONDAY, June 16, 2008, 12:15 p.m.By Larry Sandler
Cut fares, boost service, consultant says

"Town of Yorkville - Cutting fares and restoring slashed service could be key strategies for rescuing the financially troubled Milwaukee County Transit System, a nationally known transit consultant told the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority today.

"And in a turnabout from his usual positions, California-based consultant Thomas Rubin recommended serious study of a transit sales tax and of a Milwaukee-to-Kenosha commuter rail line, although he stopped short of endorsing either option.

Rubin is an unlikely figure in the regional transit debate - a prominent rail transit critic backed by two conservative think tanks, hired by pro-transit business leaders to help break a longstanding stalemate on transit funding."

Commuter rail serves suburban communities, while light rail or trolleys serve cities - - Denver, Houston, Dallas, Baltimore, Portland, Memphis, Kenosha - - and soon, Kansas City.

Just not Milwaukee.

The MMAC is trying to help save Milwaukee County's ailing bus system with a local sales tax.

Bringing in a Thomas Rubin-type of pro-bus, anti-light rail advocate might help craft a bus system stabilizing plan, but could lead to fresh obstacles for downtown trolleys or light rail - - and forfeit development, tax-base and jobs along the routes and at stations.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett supports new rapid bus lines and a downtown rail system.

Walker has blocked the rail component, any local rail variation, preferring love from talk radio that an actual transit solution.

His latest scamarama: leasing the airport and turning lease payments into transit aid.

Might take five years to finish studying and maybe getting all the approvals, and producing higher airline fares, airport vendor rentals and costs for consumers, to boot.

Some solution.

It would be a loss for the city if Rubin's insertion into the discussion helps to keep Milwaukee the only big city in a local rail-free zone in America - - with one-dimensional, bus-only transit.

Scott Walker's New Shell-Game Won't Fly

Milwaukee County taxpayers and bus riders need a real transit system financial plan and they are being offered parlor games and street-corner Three Card Monty.

Shell games are between-inning fun on Miller Park's centerfield big screen TV. Let's not elevate them to County political solutions.

Milwaukee County's bus system is facing multiple hurdles: plummeting ridership as transit use soars nationally, rising fares, no rail component, and County Executive Scott Walker's pledge to veto the latest sales tax rescue plan that is strongly backed by the business community.

Nimble politician that he is, Walker has throw out a huge diversionary idea to make it appear as if he is doing something to resolve the crisis:

Lease the county-owned Mitchell International Airport, then direct lease payments to the transit system.

The only problem is that such a scheme would take five years to implement, and the airlines that use the airport would have to OK the deal knowing their fees would rise to make the airport a profit-making business.

Increases that would be passed on to passengers, as would predictable increases in lease payments charged to the restaurants and shops that have stores in the concourses.

Some of that stuff is pretty expensive already, as are airline tickets. Want to pay more?

Walker will be long-gone from Milwaukee politics in five years, so he's avoiding a material problem that has festered since he took over the County Executive's office in 2002 by diverting us with an idea that could cause as many problems as it purportedly solves.

It's a little like trying to avoid foreclosure on your house by telling the bank that you could raise the money you owe by selling something else, like a condo - - except that the deal would take five years to complete and the other condo owners would have have to give their approval even though it would raise their association fees.

Vintage Walker: Just like his pension system 'reforms' that perpetuated bad old costly ways, and annual budgets that routinely papered over gaps with cotton-candy revenues.

Walker is the master of shell-game politics.

The county needs political leadership right now, not magic tricks.