Tuesday, December 4, 2007

State Transportation Department Is Fueling Its Opponents

Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi seems hell-bent to provoke a sustained fight with people who make up the core of the administration's Democratic/environmental, pro-transit constituency.

And as someone who has worked in and around government decision-making for many years, I can state with total certainty that the transportation department's (WisDOT) heavy-handed, highway-happy spending agenda is no accident.

Nor are the consequences, one of which will be helping critics of the agency find allies and organize more effectively, because the more that WisDOT runs roughshod - - blowing budgets, filling wetlands, dissing its transit mission, the greater will be the political rebound.

It's a curious dynamic: WisDOT has always had a culture of independence, and at times arrogance - - former Secretary Chuck Thompson's famous dictum that the agency's mission was "to let contracts" being one good example - - enabled by the agency separate budget from gas taxes and vehicle fees to spend.

But even WisDOT can go too far, and I think that is happening.

The ink wasn't dry on the Midwest Governors' agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions last month when WisDOT announced its plan for the rebuilding and expansion of the 35-mile stretch of I-94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line.

Busalacchi said the projected price had more than doubled to $1.9 billion, and would be started two years early.

Gretchen Schuldt of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways (CASH) has catalogued the complete and destructive joke that passes for planning for this project - - now more than twice the cost of the Marquette Interchange, with all its expensive bridge-work.

And because WisDOT is not budgeting a penny of that $1.9 billion for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line.

It is a project endorsed by governments all along the line because it would mitigate the I-94 construction congestion, and offer travelers an environmentally-friendly, fuel-conserving option.

There is even $91 million of ear-marked federal start-up funding available for the project, and still WisDOT will not schedule it - - which is fine with apologists for the road-builders, like Patrick McIlheran, who thinks sinking $54 million a mile into move pavement is a bargain, and suggests some of the cost can be recovered through toll collections.

There are more creative forces at work.

Fed-up Milwaukee aldermen, seeing one transit plan after another killed because there is allegedly no available funding are moving formally to see if there is a way to force WisDOT to amend the plan.

Finally, some political push-back to WisDOT's tone-deaf style of pronouncing and announcing, not discussing, listening and negotiating.

Like many Wisconsinites, the Milwaukee aldermen are sick of WisDOT's one-dimensional love affair with road-building, and its routine transfer of public funds to entitled, enabled road-builders, at the expense of modern transit alternatives, even as a supplement, not replacement, for highway spending.

Another example is the quietly-constructed sweetheart deal to rush an interchange to the Pabst Farm shopping mall, charging the local government a mere 1.6% share ($400,000 of $25 million) - - and again, without a dime for a transit connection to what is supposed to be a regional mall.

WisDOT can charge local governments and private developers up to 100% of the cost of a project like this, but assigned the developer and Waukesha County only 7% each, sticking state taxpayers with more than 84%.

James Widgerson, a prominent conservative Waukesha blogger, is now wondering whether the mall is a positive development for the area.

If the mall is a bad idea, what does that make a $25 million interchange to access it?

Will WisDOT listen to anyone on this matter other than people with a vested interest?

There is no way that WisDOT's District Two senior officials in the Waukesha office would have dipped into the regional freeway expansion plan's projected budget - - tapping money that isn't even there or borrowed, yet - - and reached that soft local share formula without the approval of the central office - - Busalacchi's domain - - in Madison.

WisDOT is a top-down agency: that arrangement had to pass muster in Madison, if it didn't originate there.

So WisDOT continues to dismiss transit while going about what it thinks is its normal, Chuck Thompson-practice - - boosting spending on highways, even as gas prices rise, to induce driving, and burning up money and land, to keep the entire WisDOT/road-builder machine in high gear.

These practices are not sustainable - - environmentally, fiscally, and politically.


Dave said...

Just a quick correction the $91 million is not earmarked for the KRM project

James Rowen said...

Yes and no. It is there for a transportation project, and if the parties would all sign on the dotted-line - - and that agreement is close and could be closed, it'd be a go.

Anonymous said...

KRM will fail and it should not go through. Simply because much of the money is there (in the form of federal dollars), does not mean we need to spend it.

Regarding I-94, perhaps Secretary Busalacchi simply understands that people in this region drive cars, that is reality, and that is not going to change.

As for the Hwy P and I-94, the project will be a positive for (yes) Waukesha County, and for the Region as a whole. Furthermore, an analysis of payments into State Government vs. Spending (by County) would demonstrate Waukesha is not being favored.

James Rowen said...

P. Wolff's comment is interesting.
He says just because the $91 million is there for a project doesn't mean we should spend it.
OK: why don't we adopt the same rationale for the billions projected for the highway rebuilding and expansion.
That's mostly federal money - - so why do you folks that for granted and waive through its spending without a blink?

Of course people in this region drive cars. People all across the country do, too, and in nearly every other market, there are rail options which arae popular, too.

You offer options, people use them. Look at the success of Amtrak between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Waukesha County and Oconomowoc and the developer are getting a sweet deal on the interchange cost sharing.

Waukesha is in line for what will turn out to be about $2 billion+ when it comes to I-94 widening and rebuilding from the Zoo to Jefferson County, over an eight-ear span, and there are other north-south projects underway or on the books.

Waukesha is doing just fine when it comes to state transportation dollars.