Friday, January 25, 2008

Guest Posting On A $1.9 Billion Boondoggle

Steve Filmanowicz, communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism, sent thoughtful and informed comments to the state transportation department on its plan to spend $1.9 billion to rebuild I-94 from Mitchell airport south to Illinois.

The CNU is directed by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, for whom Steve and I worked: Steve was kind enough to send me a copy of what he wrote while on Amtrak (try that in your car!) and to allow its posting:

By Stephen Filmanowicz

Although the costs involved are enormous, the planning for the rebuilding of I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois state line has completely lacked any rigorous cost-benefit analysis and has resulted in a deeply flawed conclusion to extensively re-engineer and expand this stretch of freeway.

The planning is based on outdated assumptions about low-priced gasoline (projecting years of sub-$2.50 per gallon gasoline, even though prices like that are a thing of the past).

Now and in the future, our country depends on oil from the Canadian tar sands, which is expensive to extract. SEWRPC and the DOT function too much like creaky old bureaucracies -- they need to synthesize new information like this much more efficiently.

The plan is based on equally outdated assumptions about the acceptability of Vehicle Miles Traveled growth and resulting growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

Since our governor has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state to levels at or below 1990, this plan to improve freeways must be tested to determine its effect on greenhouse gas emissions, factoring in the VMT growth anticipated in this highway plan and expected improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency under current laws.

The latest research, including the Growing Cooler report issued by the Urban Land Institute and its lead researcher from the University of Maryland, concludes that status quo planning of this type will result in rising -- not falling greenhouse gas emissions -- even after fuel efficiency gains take effect.

Instead, we need coordinated transportation and land-use planning to encourage clustered development that is more conducive to transit use.

This type of planning and development is succeeding in regions such as Washington DC, which is seeing a flurry of high-value development around its Metro rail stations and a weakening market for housing in far-off exurbs where residents face long commutes.

Denver and other communities are making plans to intensively develop around rail and it's high time such progressive comprehensive transportation and land-use planning comes to Wisconsin.

For these reasons, I strongly oppose this overpriced and counterproductive plan.

The latest report from the Texas Transportation shows that the Milwaukee region ranks 52nd in highway congestion. Without any structural changes to the highway system, the length of the Milwaukee commute has been falling, along with hours lost to congestion.

The continuing high price of gas obviously is playing a role in reducing highway driving. So what is the justification for driving up the price of this project by hundreds of millions of dollars with extensive re-engineering (on-ramp lengthenings and lane widenings) as well as the addition of lanes along the entire length of the project?

SE Wisconsin is growing modestly and its residents are looking for transportation options including rail and improvements to local roads, not more of our tax dollars poured into overbuilt highways.

When there are clear signs that these highways are straining from too much congestion -- is there even a daily rush hour visible on I-94 near Racine or Kenosha?? -- then it's time for us to consider spending hundreds of millions of our gas tax dollars on these projects.

Until then, do the responsible thing and rebuild I-94 at its current width with modest safety-related improvements.

And one final message: Do not seek to raise the gas tax or license fees by one penny to pay for this bloated project or others like it around the state.


Stephen Filmanowicz

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