Thursday, May 8, 2008

Wisconsin Groups, Legal Experts, Question I-94 Plan

State and local transportation officials have a predictably arrogant mentality when it comes to reviewing the written comments they are forced to seek and review before major projects move to the construction stage.

The comments are solicited, perfunctorily reviewed and dismissed so that the project can proceed.

Look no farther than the fight over Highway J (164) in Waukesha and Washington Counties, moved from planning to construction despite an initial submission of 7,000 signatures (now up to 15,000) in opposition to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

And with which WisDOT is still playing the anti-citizen game, going consultant-shopping to find someone to justify a high speed limit on the widened highway past residential neighborhoods.

Or take the 50 comments that SEWRPC brushed off - - without a single one in support - - it received from citizens against spending $25 million on the I-94 interchange proposed for the once-cancelled, and still-tenuously planned Pabst Farms shopping mall.

I could go on and on and on with examples:

The overwhelmingly positive support at hearings on behalf of light rail: dismissed.

A City of Milwaukee study to save $400 million to rebuild the Marquette Interchange: dismissed.

Comments against the $6.5 billion regional freeway plan, including formal opposition to adding lanes on valuable land in the City of Milwaukee: dismissed.

But here is a new and substantial wrinkle on this desultory dance where the public says one thing and the planners and contracting agencies do the opposite with the public's money:

Several Wisconsin groups and veteran attorneys have joined forces to question, in written comments submitted May 5th, the validity of a key environmental review carried out by state and federal officials who are rushing to begin spending $1.9 billion to rebuild and expand a 38-mile stretch of I-94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois line.

The groups are Midwest Environmental Advocates, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, The Sierra Club Great Water Group, The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - Milwaukee Branch.

A link to the groups comments is here. It is a 13-page document, footnoted, and is extremely readable though it contains legal argument.

I recommend you read it.

I can guarantee that attorneys at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, along with federal highway and environmental officials, will have to give it more than their standard review and dismiss SOP because it alleges and backs up claims that federal laws and procedures have been violated to get the $1.9 billion, transit-free project underway.

Those would include the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Aid Highway Act.

The comments document eight categories of scientific, analytical, procedural and substantive flaws in the environmental review and analysis that is pushing the project closer to ground-breaking.

The groups urge that a new environmental review be carried out.

WisDOT and the feds have scores of attorneys who will understand the import of this collective comment.

This is more the beginning of something than a concluding comment on what the project's planners believe is a fait accompli.


Anonymous said...

Anyone know how gas prices figure into the freeway planning process, and to what extent?

I'm guessing higher gas prices translate into less drivers and less congestion, thus less need to expand lanes.

On the other hand, gas is at $3.75, and I don't see people ditching their cars. Of course, this is partly because we have a deficient transit system.

James Rowen said...

The highway expansion plan was based on gasoline pegged at $2.30/gallon and 3% inflation annually beginning in 2005.

That flawed analysis is cited in the groups' comments.

Mike said...

Lets consider
-the growth of rail in the past 50 years - the success of our current transit system - the success of ANY mass transit system - the percentage of people paying for the system compared to how many will even have access to it, much less use it. Rails of any kind are history. If we want mass transit, we should fix up the buses. They fit on the roads we have, go anywhere, and require no new support systems.

James Rowen said...

Rail is expanding everywhere but in Milwaukee, and is preferred by man users over buses.

Why do we limit options here?

Anonymous said...

The gas price measure is clearly flawed, and is a great catch. DOT should use accurate gas prices in their planning.

Still, I just wanna understand this better. What impact would an accurate gas price measure have on the freeway plans? Are gas prices tied to projected auto volume/congestion, or what?

James Rowen said...

To JPK: I'll see if I can find out.

Anonymous said...

jpk wrote:

"On the other hand, gas is at $3.75, and I don't see people ditching their cars."

$3.75 seems just on the border to me. People have started buying cars with better gas mileage. Large truck sales are down. But $4.00 seems like a psychological border and $5.00 would be where habits really start to change. Gasoline has been cheap for a couple decades.

mike wrote:

"Lets consider-the growth of rail in the past 50 years - the success of our current transit system - the success of ANY mass transit system"

Are you saying there hasn't been any growth (perhaps) and the reason for this is that rail can't be successful (not the case)? I'd argue the growth of automobiles is because the federal and state governments have heavily subsidized road construction for fifty years. There has been no initiative to build better passenger rail. (Amtrak runs on freight lines and must often yield the right of way because those freight lines are owned by various railroad companies with different rules.)

Amtrak brought on a new director with a history of turning around rail and that is what started to happen. Then the Bush administration canned him. Might we speculate that some in government don't want a successful system so that it can be sold off to private business?

"- the percentage of people paying for the system compared to how many will even have access to it, much less use it. Rails of any kind are history."

Please show data on this. Amtrak is highly booked now. (Imagine if it had dedicated highspeed rail that could get you from Chicago to St Paul in four hours, or Chicago to D.C. in eight hours.) In Chicago, the Metra trains are quite full at peak hours. If you want to get to the airport without any risk of a traffic jam, take the CTA blue line. In Washington D.C. there are streams of people walking to/from Union Station (very beautiful building BTW, one of the more interesting in D.C... after the Jefferson L.O.C.); the train lines are simply packed with people. Salt Lake City has a new light rail system (built by a European company because unfortunately the U.S. is so behind on this) that winds down from the University of Utah to the heart of the city. It is fabulous (spacious, clean, cushy seats, etc.) and ridership should only increase; the city talks of extending the system. David Knopfler (a musician) described how nice and how fast he found European rail compared to England's antiquated system.

The point is that good rail and smart development can be highly successful.

A visionary presidential candidate would be one who proposes a complete overhaul of U.S. transit in the vein of the moon landing. A new, cleaner design for trains to make travel enjoyable and more efficient; a new form of high-speed track dedicated to passenger rail; a thorough trip planning service detailing how to get somewhere in an unfamiliar city with a mix of public transit; bicycle storage lockers or rentals at depots, etc. For those Washington politicians that view their huge transportation bills as a jobs program, what I described above is also a jobs program.

Jack Lohman said...

Hey guys, all of that is fine. But if you really want to find out why the DOT makes the decisions it does, FOLLOW THE MONEY!

The road builders pay massive campaign dollars to the legislators who pass the laws and control the DOT budget!

One question I never see is: "If money were not changing hands, would this decision have been made?"

Get used to it, or push your legislator to get behind campaign reform (specifically, the Risser-Pocan public funding of campaigns).

Yes, I believe the Marquette Interchange needed fixing before it collapsed. But I do not believe we need to spend $200M on I-94 expansion. But mind you, I don't give campaign contributions and the road contractors do.

You get what you pay for, in this case a corrupt political system giving away taxpayer cash to those who fund elections.

We could go on about the roads and bridges to nowhere, but in all cases it is related to who paid off whom.

See for more.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be a voice that wants the project. I am from Kenosha and people south of Milwaukee are getting pretty sick of Milwaukee throws a tantrum when something comes to this region and is not given to them. This area of Wisconsin is growing faster than the Milwaukee area and we need to expand the interstate to handle our present growth. I guess if this plan was for Milwaukee, all the voices would be for it. I hate to tell those that live in Milwaukee the state line does not occur at Ryan Road.

Jack Lohman said...

Anonymous, I can sort of understand why you would want it, and if you had bridges at risk I'd be at your side. But moving from 3 to 4 lanes just doesn't make the grade for need. And again, if money were not changing hands at the political level, do you really think the DOT would be doing this?

Anonymous said...

Clifford Krauss writes of 5 to 15% increase in ridership for public transit across the U.S.:

Anonymous writes:

"Sorry to be a voice that wants the project."

Disagreeing is fine, but your argument reads more like spite than sound logic. I, for one, wouldn't support a similar project if it were in Milwaukee. And if Wisconsin DOT proposed extra lanes for 43 I'd really be opposed. Sprawl has already destroyed much of Southeastern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. It should stop there.

Anonymous said...

Earlier I said "gas is at $3.75, and I don't see people ditching their cars."

I stand corrected:

Anonymous said...

If there ever was a highway expansion needed in WI, it's Hwy 41from Oshkosh to Green Bay. It desparatley needs expansion from 2 to 3 lanes. So, if the I-94 project gets rejected, they can always spend taxpayers money there.

Anonymous said...

Oshkosh to Green Bay? Really? For Packer games? I haven't been to Green Bay in a long, long time, but I bet it fits in the same mold as cities like Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Racine where the city core was decimated by sprawl on the outskirts. (Sheboygan still hasn't figured that out, with new super Walmarts and strip malls out near the interstate. Even the older sprawl buildings of the 80s/90s are sitting empty now.)

Stories I hear out of Green Bay portray the suburbs fighting with Green Bay over Lake Michigan water. So the suburbs pursue paying for a pipeline from Manitowoc to the Green Bay suburbs out of spite. This is exactly the kind of mess we are talking about with the strategy of encouraging more traffic and sprawl.

Anyway, here's a well written article on the subject:

Anonymous said...

I'm perhaps belaboring this thread a bit, but Derrick Jackson discusses the Amtrak situation here:

In short, ridership up noticeably, but lack of attention and encouragement for the notion of mass transit. I like that Jackson compares the time-of-travel for a European route and a similar-distanced American route to illustrate the point.