Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Government Arrogance Could Lead To Regional Cooperation

Regional cooperation, rooted in citizen outrage, might just be the unintended consequence down the road as state and regional leaders keep telling the taxpaying public to drop dead.

You want the evidence?

Wisconsin's Department of Transportation keeps speeding towards a quick start to an unnecessary and wasteful expansion of I-94, pushing to add a new lane for 35 miles each way between Milwaukee and the Illinois border.

The new lane, which studies show not improving commuting times, adds another $200 million to an already-bloated reconstruction plan and runs the total to $1.9 billion - - the state's biggest highway project ever.

The City of Milwaukee has formally objected.

Even today, Ald. Bob Bauman notes that the state wants to spend billions on highways and can't even keep its promise to Milwaukee to get a food vendor in the new multi-modal train and bus depot downtown.

Again and again, WisDOT keeps saying "shove it"to Milwaukee," as it did when the overall regional highway plan first projected the loss of hundreds of homes, along with several businesses and millions of dollars in Milwaukee's tax base.

A group of attorneys recently sent highway planners a detailed analysis of the I-94 expansion's legal and environmental deficiencies - - something of a warning shot that WisDOT was 'planning' itself into a courtroom corner - - but on Tuesday, the highway bosses again said full speed ahead.

It looks like taxpayers, with their pockets being picked by WisDOT's slavish obeisance to their road-building pals, are about to start paying lawyers to defend an indefensible highway scheme.

Remember that the next time you hit a pothole, see a bus route close, or wonder why we can't get modern rail added to our transportation mix - - when other states and smaller cities have managed to figure it out.

The $1.9 billion, eight-year, north-south I-94 project is but a piece of a bigger, $6.5 billion Regional Highwaypalooza to add 120 miles of new lanes, along with repairs and generously-labeled "improvements" to the so-called freeway system in southeastern Wisconsin.

The plan was created by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission with a $1 million grant from...who else?...WisDOT itself.

Talk about a nice, closed loop.

WisDOT handed off the highway-only planning to SEWRPC because it didn't want to take the inevitable heat from outraged citizens - - many of whom had earlier beaten up WisDOT quite justifiably when it wimped out and dropped light rail from a regional transportation plan because talk radio bashed it.

SEWRPC's $6.5 billion highway-only/no-rail plan was based on traffic projections with gasoline costing $2.30-a-gallon.

That outdated guestimate is still anchoring the plan and its spending as gasoline prices are heading for $5-a-gallon, and while there is a commuter rail plan ready to be implemented parallel to the I-94 expansion corridor between Milwaukee to the Illinois border, yet neither WisDOT or SEWRPC will change one comma or penny in those plans.

All the SEWRPC planners and administrators' salaries are paid with tax dollars, the lion's share coming from Milwaukee County property owners - - and most of those county taxpayers live in the City of Milwaukee.

WisDOT's budgets hire people and pay contractors, too - - all with tax dollars.

So what do we have?

Spending without accountability.

Taxation without representation.

Leaders and planners use the public's money to a) dismiss the public from any real input into the planning process, then b) allocate the money in ways that sacrifice any transit-stimulated investment and economic development - - while c) knowingly exacerbating costly sprawl, irretrievable land loss, smoggier air and the intentional, racially-insensitive separation of workers from a real shot at jobs or affordable housing in the 'burbs.

And what will we end up with?

A region that keeps searching for a new competitive identity, but is becoming - - with the help of local, state and regional governmental bodies - - The Region Left Behind.


How can Milwaukee attract workers and students, managers and professors, investors and tourists, when they are coming from cities where riding in from the airport on a train is the norm, as is getting around the downtown, to work and other destinations by modern rail transit?

We'll be left as a one-dimensional and backward region with more highways on the drawing boards - - paid for with gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and borrowings all sure to keep rising - - to serve sprawling subdivisions, on annexed farmland, with diverted Lake Michigan water.

It's Planning For Yesterday.

These public policies and subsidies promoted and implemented at SEWRPC and WisDOT are sucking dollars and resources to unsustainable and unaffordable distant regional edges at the very time that all best practices endorse investment where infrastructure exists already - - in cities like Milwaukee and Racine, and older suburbs like West Allis - - to better match and link workers and development using water, land and transit resources.

WisDOT, long operating with an arrogant corporate culture, will have none of it.

It has been shoving widened roads across dense urban areas and farming communities for decades - - at the expense of cities, downtowns and older suburbs - - but now the agency's approach is even more indefensible because gas costs are pricing motorists right off the pavement WisDOT is ready to pour.

It even wants to rush ahead with a $25-million new interchange in Western Waukesha to a stalled shopping mall development in the Pabst Farms project, where the mortgage crisis has suspended subdivision construction, and higher gas prices are making regional malls less attractive than built downtown commercial centers in nearby cities like Oconomowc, Fort Atkinson and Jefferson.


It continues to be exposed as an unrepresentative tool of the road-builders and subdivides, shutting Milwaukee out of its decision-making (Milwaukee has no representation on its 21-member commission, though four heavily-rural counties - - Walworth, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha, with less people total than the City of Milwaukee, have a majority of the Commission's votes, with 12.).

You want to go to a SEWRPC committee meeting, where all the work gets done?

You'll need Google Earth and a good car to find SEWRPC out in an industrial park in Pewaukee, without a bus stop, of course.

But don't expect to speak at SEWRPC committee meetings. They rarely allow public comment.

The discussion,choreographed by SEWRPC staff, is among hand-picked experts and favored consultants that reflect the agency's suburban, sprawl-inducing biases, histories and agendas.

In fact, SEWRPC just named Ken Yunker, the agency long-time deputy director, as the new executive director-to-be in a closed, no-search process, because that's the way it has always done it, SEWRPC officials have said.

At a SEWRPC task force meeting yesterday in Kenosha, out-going executive director Phil Evenson, himself the former deputy to SEWRPC's first executive director. said the promote-from-within tradition was so locked-in at SEWRPC that bringing in outside candidates through a search wouldn't have been fair - - to them!

Give Evenson credit for honesty in explaining what he said had been his decision to recommend Yunker's promotion - - and for taking "affirmative" out of affirmative action.

Even Adelene Greene, a SEWRPC commissioner from Kenosha County who was chairing the Kenosha meeting (a session of the SEWRPC Environmental Justice Task Force, not a higher-rung, full-fledged committee), called the hiring "one missed opportunity."

Give her credit for honesty, too.

When rumors of Evenson's impending resignation percolated across the region, I posted a lengthy analysis in January about the need for a fresh start, and a new mindset at SEWRPC.

Missed opportunity...for sure - - and more will occur unless and until Milwaukee County can extricate itself from SEWRPC, and be reconstituted as a regional planning body with authority over one county only, just like the status Dane County has achieved with its single county planning body.

I've written about this before. Without control over its destiny and budgets, its land and water, Milwaukee County - - and the City of Milwaukee that, by law, cannot expand its borders one square-inch - - are doomed to second-or-third-class status relative to neighboring counties.

Which is fine with the outlying counties: they get to run SEWRPC with Milwaukee money, but keep Milwaukee land-locked, and locked-down.

When the water diversions are fully pumping Lake Michigan water to the many outlying communities already identified by SEWRPC as targets, and this round of highway expansion is finished in time for the next multi-billion-dollar round of scheduled rebuilding, people in Milwaukee will still be clamoring for affordable transit.

The only difference by then will be that the people lured by water and added lanes to Sprawlville, when gasoline is $15-per-gallon and/or rationed, will also wish that rail lines had been finished years earlier, too.

Maybe that will be the real basis of regional cooperation - - not among governments and agencies, but among real people, city and suburban folks alike - - the public wondering aloud, and together, where their tax dollars went in 2008, when the leaders and planners still pretended it was 1988.

Then demanding through recalls and elections that the will of the people be finally respected.

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