Monday, December 3, 2007

State Transportation Manual Suggests Pabst Farm Interchange Local Shares Too Low

When a cost-sharing plan for the $25 million I-94 interchange for the now-cancelled Pabst Farms shopping mall was announced, the local governments and the developer were assigned very small shares.

This was the breakdown - - State, $21.9 million (84.4%); Waukesha County, $1.75 million (7%); developer, also $1.75 million (7%); City of Oconomowoc, $400,000 (1.6%).

At the time, with the three local shares totalling about 15%, I called for an investigation by the Wisconsin Audit Bureau, and the legislative Joint Audit Committee.

A new mall developer is said to be close to announcing a construction plan, though it is not clear if the reconstituted mall will be same size and scale of the now-cancelled "upscale mall" previously planned by the same company that pulled out. That company also owns Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa.

Government officials have denied that big-box stores would replace the mall concept planned as an anchor for the Pabst Farms.

To determine if the interchange proposal came with normal local cost shares, I obtained a copy of the applicable Wisconsin Department of Transportation's Division of Investment Management "Program Management Manual," Document No. 03-25-01.

It's the document that tells local governments and developers if and why they have to bear a share of road projects that are "not local highway, bridge or multi-modal projects," the manual says in bold-face.

The manual suggests that the "local cost sharing" assignment in highway expansion or interchange projects is often in the range of 25%-100%, with the degree of "local benefit" and "significant local traffic" being heavy determinants.

It is not clear what WisDOT language from the manual has been applied to fit the Pabst Farms interchange, and there is wiggle room in some of the criteria, but it looks like the shares announced give the developer and the local governments multi-million breaks:

Section "4.4.2 Modified or Upgraded Access," (section numbers are bold-faced throughout) says this:

"Modified or upgraded access, either intersections or interchanges, are 100 percent funded by the developer if the need for the access being changed serves a local development only."

Sounds like the proposed Pabst Farms mall interchange to me, as the plan all along was to add an interchange off I-94 to serve the so-far non-existent shopping mall.

The interchange construction plan calls for replacing a nearby off-ramp that does not provide service in both directions, and which certainly does not serve the mall property, with a full "diamond-interchange" that will provide access to the mall from both directions off I-94.

The mall site at the so-called Pabst Farms Town Centre takes up 184 acres of a total of 1,600 in the overall development - - so big, that when finished, and its 1,500 units of housing are built-out, it could double the population of Oconomowoc.

Other criteria in the transportation project manual call for different cost distribution percentages - - a local share of 25%, according to Section 4.3.1 Add Additional Travel Lanes, for example, "if the project adds additional travel lanes and meets the "significant local traffic criteria" - - and WisDOT has the authority to negotiate the shares, manual section says.

Is the new interchange, and pavement from the interstate to the parking lots for shoppers, a travel lane?

Essentially the interchange is being rushed into planning because the mall, if one is to be built, can't open without access off I-94, and no one budgeted for the interchange until some crisis meetings earlier in the fall.

So much for coordinating use planning with transportation decisions - - a stated goal of the local cost sharing process in the WisDot manual, by the way.

So someone or a group did address and answer some of the these questions when it was decided that a local share of about 84%-7%-7%-1.6 %were required - - but by whom, and why, and how was the decision made to keep the local shares so low - - in Oconomowoc's case, 1.6%, though the mall goes in the heart of that city's largest development ever?

Is it that fair to state taxpayers in Ashland, or Boscobel, or Racine, for whom the benefits of the mall are much farther from the developer's bottom line, the City of Oconomowoc, and other parts of Waukesha County?

How about some sunlight on the process and decision-making that gave the locals such a sweetheart deal.

How about someone looking out for the taxpayers?

Again, let's bring in the investigators.

And let's have the answers out on the table before the next, rumored developer waltzes in and picks off such a preferential arrangement.

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