Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Petroleum Costs Should Boost Wisconsin Transit, Shelve New Highways

Crude oil broke through the $132-per-barrel price today, which means at this pace, gasoline will be $5-a-gallon by the summer.

What's the peak?

$175-200-per-barrel crude? $8-$10-a-gallon gasoline at the pump?

And I don't mean in 20 years.

I mean by next year, but project these trends out 20 years or so, and you wonder if anyone will be driving anything bigger than a motorbike on all the new highway lanes planned for southeastern Wisconsin, and no doubt, in every municipality and state in the country, where road-builders routinely manage public highway planning.

It'll make your head spin to absorb all the consequences of crude oil and its products priced far beyond the capacity of households, businesses and entire governments to tolerate them (crude oil was as low as $8-a-barrel in 1999, and about half its current price a year or so ago), but put aside questions like, will you ever fly on an airplane again, or can farmers and truckers afford the fuel they need so you can eat, and ask yourself this:

Can the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) demonstrate that it is factoring in the new harsh realities facing our petro-economy into any rethinking to justify the massive highway spending it still wants to undertake in southeastern Wisconsin?

Got a task force working on it? One of its many consultants? Some sharp in-house wizard?

An intern?

I doubt it.

Look to what WisDOT is doing instead: it's hellbent to launch a $1.9 billion reconstruction, enhancment and widening of the north-south leg of I-94 this fall, from Milwaukee to Illinois, to run for the next eight years.

And its well into the preliminary work on yet a second costly, related project at the Zoo Interchange west of Milwaukee that was moved up to begin in 2012 - - a purely political decision by the state made just prior to the 2006 elections to satisfy one noisy Sprawlville legislator, State Sen. Ted Kanavas, (R-Brookfield) - - so unlike the Marquette Interchange piece of the regional freeway plan that has run from 2004-2008, there will be two segments of the plan underway at the same time.

Nothing like it has been undertaken by the state.


And there's more highway-building on the drawing boards in the SE regional plan (other regions have their projects scheduled, too, but not quite at this scale) - - north on I-43 the length of Ozaukee County, west on I-94 in Waukesha County to the Jefferson County line, south into Walworth County, and on I-94 in the City of Milwaukee right past the Storyhill neighborhood and Miller Park, complete with 127 miles of new lanes, scores of widened ramps, plus resurfacings and other enhancements.

It's way beyond maintaining and fixing what we've got already - - which should always be Priority One and often isn't.

And all this was planned out in 2003, using a projected cost for gasoline at $2.30 a gallon, by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and then approved by WisDOT.

There was never any doubt that WisDOT would do anything but approve the plan.

That's because it paid the planning commission $1 million to write it, so it was "approving" something it had already bought and paid for from an agency with the word "planning" in its title.

But let's be honest:

It's hard to imagine that when all the new lanes are open, and the sweeping ramps are finished, and all the vaunted safety improvements are done, and the last ribbon is cut in about 20-25 years that gasoline will be anywhere near $2.30-a-gallon.

Or $3.30, $4.30, $5.30, $6.30, $7.30...just keep going.

Can WisDOT show us that with gas prices heading skyward, and worldwide demand also accelerating, there will be the traffic demand for such huge capacity increases on this highway system - - projected to cost $6.5 billion when it's over?

A bottom-line construction figure that is sure to jump and take more money from taxpayers because the costs for fuel to ship in the materials and run all the road-building equipment are soaring, too.

Can WisDOT continue to deliberately leave transit out of transportation planning and implementation in the region, when killer gas costs will price many motorists out of their vehicles?

When many two-and-three car families will be forced to move to single-car arrangements, and many people with only one car will find it impossible to maintain it, or use it often - - and transit will become a much more widespread choice, and for many, a basic survival need?

When does all the agencies' one-dimensional spending and anti-transit decisions move from the fiscal sphere to the moral realm?

I'd say...yesterday.

Yet I see no urgency in state government to face up to a bigger picture and a new paradigm, let alone a willingness to ask and answer these questions - - questions that are being faced at every dinner table and in every business in the country.

Isn't now the time to begin to have the debate and make changes that we can live with next month, next year, and in the coming generations?

Instead, at the State Capitol, there is denial, adherence to the old, encrusted thinking, and a clinging to the familiar ways, lubricated by campaign cash from the highway lobby and its allies.

What's needed now is realism, and action - - the very first move of which could and should be the immediate tabling of the I-94 north-south plan in favor of much less-costly repaving, resurfacing, and the prompt financing transfer to the pending commuter rail line that runs roughly parallel to the interstate highway.

With that shift from new highway lanes to transit, the new model will take root, and its replication across the state can send a smart signal to the rest of the county, too.

For Wisconsin, for the southeastern region, and for every elected official, the transition is possible, the need imminent.

This is the moment.

1 comment:

Dave1 said...

You are absoulutely right!

I live in the northwest corner of the state where we seldom see new road construction or much in the way of maintenance. I cringe when I see how much money is being frittered away on these mega-projects.

You talk about having to ride scooters in the future. Won't work up here for 5 months out of the year (unless it's a snow scooter). We'd better get serious about transit!