Friday, June 20, 2008

SEWRPC: Advisor, Or Advocate?

Defenders of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission are fond of repeating the agency's claim that it gives advice and doesn't veer into advocacy.

Patrick McIlheran of the Journal Sentinel trotted that out the other day, and I argued in response that an agency like SEWPRC moves beyond advice to advocacy everytime it chooses to study one issue over another, commits its resources, writes an agenda, selects a committee, hires staff, picks consultants and produces studies, plans and other documents.

And that helps explain why SEWRPC's work products have been pro-suburban and pro-highway expansion - - with housing, transit and other more urban priorities getting the short end of the stick out at SEWRPC's exurban Pewaukee offices. this context, let's consider this letter from SEWRPC chairman Thomas H. Buestrin to Gov. James Doyle, dated January 27, 2003.

You decide if his are the words of an advisor, or an advocate.

I'll set the scene: In January, 2003, SEWRPC's freeway expansion study was essentially finished, and would be formally wrapped up at the commission in a few months. Public comments had run against the study's proposed new 127 miles of traffic lanes, with commenters often suggesting transit additions instead of bigger highways.

To counteract those comments, SEWRPC commissioned a public opinion survey with questions designed to elicit pro-freeway responses.

The freeway project's first phase, rebuilding and expanding the Marquette Interchange, would begin in 2004, with the City of Milwaukee trying to convince the state to reduce the scale and cost of the project.

Buestrin is a long-serving SEWRPC commissioner from Ozaukee County, according to the SEWRPC website.

(SEWRPC does not offer comprehensive biographical information about its commissioners on the agency website. It notes that Buestrin has served for nearly 30 years, in two lengthy stints, dating to 1970. Googling Buestrin, I read that he is on the board of Bank Mutual Corporation, Brown Deer, which operates banks in Wisconsin. The Bank Mutual Corporation 2008 proxy statement has this description of director Buestrin:

"President of Buestrin, Allen & Associates Ltd., real estate investment, management and development."

Wrote Buestrin to Doyle:

"I am writing to express the Commission's support for the reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange as proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). The Department's proposal fulfills the promise of ensuring a truly modern, efficient interchange that will be required to serve the greater Milwaukee area and, indeed, the entire State for the next 50 years. Other proposals recently advanced fall short of fulfilling that promise.

"The Commission has worked closely with the WisDOT for many years, providing the vital transportation systems planning that precedes detailed engineering work by the Department. Our work has consistently found a compelling need to accomplish design improvements as our freeways are rebuilt over the next 25 to 30 years, including the elimination of left-hand turning movements at freeway-to-freeway interchanges, the minimization of lane drops at such interchanges, and the reduction of sharp curves on freeway interchange ramps that impede traffic flow and contribute to traffic accidents. The WisDOT design recommendations for the Marquette Interchange would achieve all of these objectives. The Marquette Interchange proposal has been recommended by the Commission's Freeway Study Advisory Committee which consists of a broad mix of public and private sector leaders from throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Moreover, our public opinion surveys indicate strong support for "doing it right" as we make critical freeway rebuild decisions in the coming years.

"We understand that the present financial situation is a very difficult one. As we begin to rebuild the southeastern Wisconsin freeway system, however, we need to be forward looking and ensure that the investments made over the next few years serve the Region and the State well for many years to come.

"Thank you for your consideration in this manner.

"Very truly yours,

"Thomas H. Buestrin

Advice, or advocacy?

Oddly, says McIlheran, in yet another furious bit of keyboarding aimed at me on his blog, it's both.

The tirade tracks poorly. He alleges some people want to make some planning outcomes illegal.

And McIlheran only gives his readers a portion of the large second paragraph in Buestrin's letter, and none of graphs one, three, and the forth, which is only a single line in closing.

I reprinted Buestrin's entire text, so nothing is taken out of context.

McIlheran stooped to spin wrapped around some selective quotes.

I'd expected better

But back to Buestrin's letter.

Let's put it this way: if the Chairman of SEWRPC ever wrote a letter to the Governor about why the state should spend $6.3 billion modernizing and expanding transit in this region - - in a plan that didn't set money aside for highway upgrades or new lanes - - you could honestly say: "Wow: SEWRPC is run by a real transit advocate!"

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