Monday, May 19, 2008

Roadblocks To Rail Prove We Need A New Definition of "Region"

The Journal Sentinel editorial board makes the case for commuter rail in the Sunday Crossroads section.

The truth is that transit expansions in all their needed and connected forms - - light rail, commuter rail and better coordinated buses - - will not be realized or even coherently discussed in southeastern Wisconsin without strong, long-term pressure from the business community.

That is the best way to counter the local hostility to new transit-supporting revenue sources by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and his right-wing talk radio boosters.

Real progress on rail investment may take place someday, though it will have to wait until Walker is gone from County Government and is neither Governor or successful in leaving behind an anti-transit and anti-urban clone.

But without basic changes about how planning and execution of plans is carried out in a region where Milwaukee is at the center, but is legally and politically kept in a secondary position, the prospects for real change in and around Milwaukee are dim.

Here's why.

The pending commuter rail plan linking Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha is crucial for regional development and for the betterment of the existing business and cultural connections to northern Illinois and Chicago.

But the regional debate in southeastern Wisconsin is typically about trying to pair up Milwaukee with Waukesha - - cities and counties that for cultural and economic reasons are antagonistic.

That's the truth, the cold, hard reality of the situation, and efforts to keep trying to arrange a marriage between them are going to meet with resistance on both sides.

Just watch what will happen when communities in Waukesha County begin serious talks with Milwaukee over Lake Michigan water sales, and the hysteria that will break out west of 124th St. if and when Milwaukee looks to link water sales to regional matters of transit, housing and economic development.

It happened before when the suburbs killed light rail, and fought putting a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium downtown.

I am not sure if the seismographs at UW-M will be able to register the reaction without breaking if water's value is correctly tied to larger issues and is defined as a regional development tool - - with Milwaukee being seen as an integral player and not just a city with water treatment capacity to contract out to the low bidders.

The bigger cities of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha - - the heart of southeastern Wisconsin's urban base - - stand to gain far less from strengthened relationships with Waukesha than are awaiting the region from connections to northern Illinois and Chicago.

The dismissal of an urban agenda in the regional debate and territory defined by the seven-county Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Walworth) has repeatedly held back Milwaukee and the other urbanized areas, as the more rural out-counties have used their majority at SEWRPC to command resources and direct the work.

Waukesha County exercises a disproportionate share of the power at SEWRPC: it's where the key staffers live, where the headquarters have always been, and where its consulting partners operate, even selling them its headquarters (Ruekert & Mielke) in Pewaukee on a no-bid, 'we're all friends' basis.

Waukesha County wanted a water supply study carried out, and asked SEWRPC to write it.

So SEWRPC hired Ruekert & Mielke to manage it, and when the study is done, its recommendations for water diversions to Waukesha County and other suburban and exurban communities from Milwaukee will simply validate SEWRPC's long-standing land-use and highway plans - - the institutional trigger for decades of sprawl and growth away from Milwaukee, the only Wisconsin city land-locked by an anti-annexation state law.

For Milwaukee, and Racine and Kenosha to genuinely succeed with transit expansion to solidify and expand their urban economies - - and to take full advantage of their lakefront water assets - - those counties and their urban cores need a planning body that does not dilute or dismiss them in favor of a suburban and exurban bias.

As long as each county at SEWRPC has three seats on its commission, meaning that the city of Milwaukee has none, but smaller rural counties like Walworth, Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha have 12 of the 21 votes, Milwaukee city and county will continue their second-class status.

Dane County has a planning commission of one county. Madison got the legislature to keep its planning correctly focused.

Madison and Dane County, where Madison clearly dominate, didn't and doesn't have to turn decision-making control about its future to county politicians in Jefferson, Dodge or Columbia - - and why should they?

Milwaukee would benefit from the same arrangement, and if alliances were sought, a planning partnership with Racine and Kenosha, too.

With a regional planning commission that understands and values cities, the regional Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line now held hostage by suburban interests would already have been underway.

Motorists facing $4-per-gallon gasoline would have had an alternative to the I-94 drive to the south, the bad air quality in the corridor that is unhealthy and stunting industry there would be on its way to actual remediation, and the state might not have been so hell-bent on jamming $1.9 billion it doesn't have into rebuilding I-94 from Milwaukee to Illinois with an additional lane, either.

Look no farther than the deliberate exclusion of the rail line from the I-94 corridor transportation plan, and the deliberate exclusion of any transit components to the $6.5 billion freeway plan that SEWRPC created for its region as proof positive that regionalism, as currently defined, does little for the cities in the region, their urban form, their transit riders or their economic development.

It's a good thing that the Journal Sentinel is solidly in favor of commuter rail in southeastern Wisconsin.

Better transit and balanced transportation in the area are much needed.

Getting past the region's inertia on that matter and many others - - no SEWRPC housing study since 1975, for example - - requires a redefinition of the region and the agendas on which planning dollars and public resources broadly-defined are spent.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Consideration should be given to having Milwaukee County de-fund SEWRPC. I mean what has Milwaukee County ever gotten for all the money spent funding SEWRPC?