Monday, January 21, 2008

Gaps in SEWRPC Mindset, Performance, Require An Overhaul

Thanks to the Internet, you can read the extensive, detailed comments the Sierra Club made recently to several agencies and officials on regional transportation issues.

It's really well-done, a first-rate collection of finely written and researched commentaries by a few people, particularly about state transportation policy and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's (SEWRPC) work on some transportation plans.

Which got me thinking:

If local, state and regional agencies would put the same time and energy into comprehensive planning that is reflected in the Sierra Club's analyses of important issues, we'd have something reflecting comprehensive planning coming out of SEWRPC, for example.

But stodgy SEWRPC's model - - its practice, if you will - - is the repetitive creation of separate studies and plans on major themes as if they were isolated, and not integrated.

Each in its silo, so to speak.

That explains how SEWRPC could commit to a three-year regional water supply study without regard to fundamental environmental justice considerations for groups excluded from the process.

Or an awareness of how recommending diversions of Lake Michigan water to fast-growing suburbs might have impacts on the region's employment, transportation and housing patters.

That is why SEWRPC could write a highway reconstruction and rebuilding plan for the region, and recommend it enthusiastically to the even-more enthusiastic state transportation department that paid for and received it - - without any transit component or upgrade or addition.

It's mind-boggling to pretend that transit and highways have no relationship, and that all the other planning issues for the region are not influenced by the continuing imbalance in spending that favors highways over buses, and certainly rail options.

That's also why SEWRPC is busy working on various transportation, land use and water supply studies - - but no housing plan - - and has not written one for the region since 1975.

Yes, that's right. 1975. A nice, neat, one-third of a century ago.

The year the Vietnam War ended. When Gerald Ford was President and the Milwaukee Brewers were still seven years away from their only World Series appearance, usually seen as a marker for something around here that happened a long, long, long time ago.

Since 1975, we've had the condo boom, advances in green building, the emergence of the home office and telecommunications revolutions, a wave of sprawl development across the region, skyrocketing gasoline prices, the emergence of New Urbanism, the resurgence of downtown and urban preferences, growth of an across-the-board conservation ethic, early Boomer retirements and now the prime-lending fiasco - - and no regional housing plan predicting, reacting to or acknowledging any of these developments and trends.

People in the seven-county SEWRPC region (Milwaukee, Washington, Ozaukee, Waukesha, Kenosha, Racine, Walworth) fund the agency every year with millions in property tax dollars, peeled off every tax bill with virtually no debate.

Are we getting our money's worth?

Is there a big-picture focus at the top of the SEWRPC directory, and does that approach infuse all the work there, govern its hiring practices, its communications and interactions with media, agencies, customers?

I don't see it.

It's time that taxpayers demand a better product from SEWRPC's top managers and Commission members, and from the Governor and county boards and county executives that share Commission appointment powers.

What we need in our region of modest growth, but real environmental and economic problems, is bolder, cutting-edge, inclusive thinking that is matched up intentionally with aggressive outreach and an unlimited intellectual horizon.

A good start would be an outside, performance-based audit of the agency, with genuine citizen input from the get-go.

That could be required by any of the seven counties as a condition of making its annual property tax contribution.

2008 is a big year for the region. Huge decisions are pending with regard to water supply policy and transportation spending that will push land use and housing and job-creation - - all intertwined even if SEWRPC's current leadership does not endorse or embrace that reality - - for decades.

SEWRPC could be at the head of this effort. It could position itself as the authoritative regional source for data as well as vision, for comprehensive solutions, for energetic and inclusive outreach - - all to deal with the region's daily realities and needs.

That would mean remaking itself, and if SEWRPC won't or can't, then everyone - - Smart Growth advocates and tax reformers, Republicans and Democrats, low-income workers and business owners, suburbanites and city-dwellers - - should demand, and oversee, the overhaul that SEWRPC needs and that they/we all deserve.

If not, the region will remain where it is: often uncompetitive, closed-off and closed-minded, exclusionary to minority and low-income residents, the perpetual "C" student when "A's" are attainable, and absolutely vital to the region and its residents' success.

Without fundamental and strategic and willful changes to many of the levels of business-as-usual around here - - with SEWRPC being a major example - - that agency will remain where and what it is:

Cloistered in Pewaukee, inaccessible by transit, densely bureaucratic, opaque, muted, even without audio taping, let alone video streaming, of its meetings, hidden behind an unexciting, anachronistic website (news flash: did recently add something really cool, a breakthrough - - something called a "search" function!), being quietly powerful when it chooses (more highways), but more often than not, remote, and irrelevant.


Anonymous said...

SEWRPC's role in the local decision making process is telling. One of their occasional "plans" for mass transit is couched in local decision making authority - SEWRPC modestly begging off any centralized role. Road plans, however, come with muscle and orgies of bed fellows with vested interests.

SEWRPC has transitioned from a "Planning" organization to an institution interested in its own well being.

Anonymous said...

In fairness to them, they don't know the depth of their own cluelessness. You've certainly made a well reasoned case for dramatic re-evalution of their purpose. If not their very existence.

I'd go so far as to say SEWRPC has been a major stumbling block to regional cooperation. Parochialism is in their autocratic interest.