Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chickens Coming Home To Roost: SEWRPC Leader Backs Highway Tolls

Philip Evenson - - executive director of our regional planning commission (SEWRPC) that supporters claim doesn't commit flagrant acts of advocacy - - told a transportation conference in Waukesha County Tuesday that Wisconsin needs to start collecting some road tolls.

This is not a surprise.

Evenson led the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission through a two-year study that produced a $6.5 billion freeway reconstruction and expansion plan - - but did not recommend a financing mechanism to pay for it.

The study's final report, chapter seven, says the financing is up to the state.

In other words, SEWRPC suggested spending billions over several decades, but said, in effect: 'Financing? Not our problem.'

So the state is forging ahead with a $1.9 billion spending commitment on the not-so-congested I-94 corridor from Milwaukee to Illinois, and has moved up the $400 million or so Zoo Interchange rebuilding, too - - but still can't say where the money is coming from.

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist was a member of the freeway study's advisory committee, said at the time the SEWRPC recommendations were flawed because they did not include a financing plan, and voted against it.

Regional and state planners routinely recommend more highway projects than Wisconsin can finance with gas taxes, licensing fees and income tax revenues.

The gap has been as much as $5 billion in recent years, and now that driving is declining, and more-efficient engines are burning less fuel, the road-builders and their allies grasp that state gas tax collections are even less able now to sustain their concrete-and-new-lane building-binge.

Tolls can serve as a mechanism to directly fund transit, or move people towards transit alternatives, but in the Milwaukee area, that means to an already-failing Milwaukee County bus system, or your bike.

I was foolishly hoping that SEWRPC would react to spiking gasoline prices by proposing and planning for transit expansion now, and would also pull back its multi-billion dollar freeway plan that includes 120 miles of new lanes across seven southeastern Wisconsin counties.

SEWRPC should be rethinking the wisdom and sustainability of the exurban sprawl model that its highway and related plans have enabled in this region.

Instead, the agency is going in the opposite direction - - more roads and more capacity - - paid for by taxpayers who would then be asked to pay again to use them through a toll collection system.

Evenson says we need the will in Wisconsin to start charging tolls.

That may play well to the road-builders and assorted Waukesha business leaders who gathered to hear the discussion, but I doubt legislators in either party will come around to a "Be More Like Illinois" motto.

They know if they were to support it, the electoral bell would toll for them.

Another prediction: SEWRPC, perhaps with the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation that took part in the Waukesha conference will announce a study to examine, merely explore, from an objective perspective, the value of road tolling.

To which Milwaukee County should not pay one thin dime, because Evenson has tipped SEWRPC's hand.

Ironically, Evenson is helping make the case that Milwaukee should get the heck out of SEWRPC and put its regional planning property tax money into studies and recommendations that better serve an urban population that needs more transit.


Anonymous said...

I almost fell off my chair when I read that JS article this morning.

For a commission coming under fire from Milwaukee about being overtly auto-centric, they certainly seem to be adding fuel to the combustion...

"What's wrong with a premium charge for a premium ride???" Ummm, public dollars building this ride my friends.

Who are these panelists? Oh yeah, some guy who wrote a book called 'The Road MORE Traveled' and the director of the WI Transportation Builders Assoc.
A bit biased perhaps?

And the kicker - people are driving more fuel efficient cars and trucks which means less gas, hence the gravy train to bacon-ville is leaving.

Nice logic but that ignores the fact that people are starting to DRIVE LESS!!

Now, I'm no expert in these matters, but in my mind, less people driving means less lanes needed.

Anonymous said...

You'll want to check out the latest issue of THE WILSON QUARTERLY magazine where there is a discussion of LEASED TOLL ROADS - - something Wisconsin will undoubtedly be tempted to do.

Indiana has a state budget of $13 billion; they leased their tool road for $4 billion. Evidently, a few months of interest on that payment exceeded the amount Indiana had made in 50 years of tolling that road.

However, the lease runs until 2081; that could be trouble. And privatized public utilities are prone to break (witness the California power debacle).