Sunday, June 1, 2008

Politicians, Planners And Lobbyists Choose Highways Over Rail

Saturday's Journal Sentinel editorial on transportation policy says that in southeastern Wisconsin, the choice should not be highways or rail, that an either/or dynamic is wrong.

Thus the paper renews its support for the widening and rebuilding of I-94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line, and for the construction of the commuter rail line in the same corridor.

The problem is that the state has made it an either or decision: $1.9 billion for the highway project, including $200 million for the new, added lane, and zero dollars for the commuter rail line - - which has a $200 million price tag.

Furthermore: the I-94 construction project is part of a $6.5 billion regional highway reconstruction and remodeling - - again, zero dollars for any transit upgrade or initiative.

Who wrote the plan?

SEWRPC - - the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission - - using a $1 million grant from the state transportation department - - and without whose recommendation a highway plan using this much federally-originating gas tax money could not proceed.

The plan was written in 2003 and received with approval, not surprisingly, by the state that paid for it.

Now flash forward to 2008: the state transportation department says traffic projections by SEWRPC justify the I-94 project, and the feds signed off on the plan last week.

Again - - no surprise.

It is a closed loop, planned and implemented by and with state and federal dollars spent in Southeastern Wisconsin predicated on the either/or scenario.

Highways, yes. $6.5 billion worth between 2004-2030.

Rail and other transit, no new dollars, even as the price of gas is spiking and the $6.5 billion highway plan is based on driving projections with gasoline costing $2.30.

This imbalance in planning and spending on transportation is embedded because the lobbies for highways are stronger, better-positioned and richer than are the advocates for transit.

And because the planning and implementation for transportation in Southeastern Wisconsin arises in Madison and in SEWRPC's suburban and exurban base, all of which is disconnected from transit users centered in Milwaukee, Racine, older suburbs like West Allis and universities.

This all may change when gasoline prices cripple the sprawl economies, and upper-income residents in distant subdivisions, rather than move back to the cities, will begin to demand what they will define as their fair share of transit services.

Then we'll get commuter rail, and maybe, maybe, better urban transit systems, too, but at a much higher cost then what would have been required if the political powers in Madison and at the regional level had been less biased against cities and transit users the last 50 years.


Anonymous said...

I was curious to see the recent comments in Letters to the Editor (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) saying that drivers are really not seeing much congestion on I-94 north of the border. That is certainly my experience as well. I wonder what the official stats are on that seemingly crucial subject. (And wouldn't you think a local TV news crew might take a camera over there and do some onsite fact-checking and reporting?)

Joshua Skolnick said...

Rip a page from the right wing and lets do a tax protest since they refuse to spend anything on rail transit! Refuse to pay the portion of state taxes going to highways!

Seriously, it ceases to amaze me how retrograde our transportation policy is. When Wisconsinites look down their nose at Illinoians, we fail to realize they have the last laugh with viable and expanding mass transit options. We ripped out 360 miles of electrified light rail and destroyed commuter rail lines to Walworth County that linked to Chicago and could now be bringing people up for the weekend for $5! Imagine the money going into the local economy instead of being exported to OPEC and big oil.

Imagine that little towns such as Elburn and Harvard now have regular commuter rail service to Chicago, yet us fossil fools in Wisconsin continue with the backwards devotion to the petroleum-auto-truck-highway complex. As far back as 1957, Admiral Hyman Rickover predicted that the internal combustion engine would be a dead-end technology, we would run out of oil, and electrified rail was the way of the future for surface transport.