Friday, January 18, 2008

Highway Systems Take Their Toll

While Wisconsin continues to spend itself towards highway budget ruin - - a torrent of un-budgeted commitments, including $5.7 billion is being poured into more lanes and modifications to the misnamed 'freeway' system in Southeastern Wisconsin - - other states are turning their existing, taxpayer-paid interstates into toll roads under new federal rules.

Used to be you could do that, but the feds have eased the rules, so expect other states to do the same, with corporations, even foreign entities building and managing the systems, and collecting the tolls in some cases.

Wisconsin hasn't asked for that permission yet, instead forging ahead as it has for decades, building and expanding roads and adding to expensive maintenance, patrolling, plowing, debt-service and other recurring costs.

The highway lobby in Wisconsin is the Badger State equivalent of the national Military-Industrial Complex - - an interconnected, self-serving web of lobbyists, contractors and government officials keeping one hand in our pockets and the other on the revenue spigot.

It's much the same in other states, except in Wisconsin, the lobby is monomanically focused on only one form of transportation spending - - roads - - while excluding rail innovation from the mix.

There's plenty of money to be made building, maintaining and operating transit lines, but in Wisconsin, change comes slowly. What the Government-Contractor Highway Complex knows is only one thing.

More roads.

The lack of choices keeps city, suburban and rural populations heavily auto-dependant, artificially fueling the demand for more road-building, the unsustainable spending it requires, and the additionally unsustainable development sprawl it creates.

In southeastern Wisconsin, this distortion has been aided and abetted by the regional planning commission, SEWRPC, which gives lip service to transit recommendations and enthusiastic support for highway planning.

The regional 'freeway' plan - - zero funding for any transit components- - that began its 25-30 year implementation in 2004 - - was drafted by SEWRPC with a million-dollar grant from the state transportation department.

An unintended consequence, perhaps?

The need for new funding sources to pay for and maintain all these new roads and lanes - - so it may be the specter of tolls on the horizon that causes some road warriors to think twice about this unrestrained highway construction.

Toll road advocates, like former Milwaukee State Rep. Kevin Soucie, have said that tolling to pay for projects like those in the Southeastern Wisconsin plan is the only way to continue to support the size major highway projects.

I used to think: No Way - - that anti-tolling, anti-Illinois sentiment would help keep tolls out of Wisconsin, but with public budgets getting thinner and thinner, and the highway lobby continuing to lobby for, get and spend fresh billions here each year, maybe Soucie will turn out to be right.

The burden would fall heaviest on the poor, and on business people who could not afford to risk taking non-tolled, more circuitous routes to their destinations.

Some special toll lanes, or those with tolls rising and falling with the time of day, or level of congestion, are called "Lexus lanes," and not without justification.

Much of this entire debate would be different if rail were in the mix, if there were balance in the transportation plan, and if there was some semblance of reason or limits in the highway lobby's dreams.

There there are no such restraints, making toll roads in Wisconsin more likely in our lifetimes, and sooner that you might think.


Anonymous said...

Is there a place for compromise here? No toll ways in Wisconsin in exchange for development of rail?

Dave said...

Yea as the DOT is all crazy to add new lanes wouldn't it make sense to build them right away as HOT lanes? But oh no they haven't really even considered that!