Thursday, June 19, 2008

SEWRPC Said Freeways Now, Alternatives Later, Documents Show

As the state is preparing to begin a $1.9 billion reconstruction and widening of I-94 south from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line, without a parallel commuter train component or other scheduled and budgeted transit innovations, keep this in mind if you wonder why:

When the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) finished writing the $6.3 billion regional freeway reconstruction and expansion plan in 2002 that it forwarded for implementation to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation - - the plan that includes the upcoming, record-setting highway expenditure - - SEWRPC could have written a more comprehensive and balanced transportation plan for the region instead.

It chose not to write such a plan, according to documents SEWRPC's own records.

Bear with me here: I'll point you to several letters and documents in a lengthy but accessible SEWRPC pdf that is well worth the downloads.

SEWRPC rolled out its freeway plan in 2002, after a long, million-dollar study paid for by WisDOT, that called for 127 miles of new lanes across its seven-county region.

It then took comments and held a series of public hearings, where testimony ran against a regional transportation plan costing so much money, and taking so much land, over so many years without being balanced with better transit and other so-called "freeway-related" improvements.

SEWRPC compiled the hearing record, and on its website,, has archived every written comment it received.

Give the agency for being thorough.

I'm going to reference several comments and documents in the archive because they offer deep insight and hard evidence into how and why we have ended up with a multi-billion-dollar-freeway-only plan now unfolding just as spiking gas prices are both tamping down driving and raising the demand for transit.

The written comments are archived as Appendix C.

Sometimes the file takes a while to load, as it is lengthy, and watch the pagination.

On p. 121 of the comment archive, a May 20, 2002 letter from Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist to SEWRPC Executive Director Philip Evenson is posted.

Norquist says he has read, (and submits with his letter), a WisDOT document dated September 8, 1998, that is entitled "Proposal to foster a public dialogue leading to a regional consensus on implementable freeway-related improvements in Southeastern Wisconsin."

(I am struck in that title by the words "dialogue...consensus..freeway-related improvements." For a WisDOT document title and orientation, WOW!)

Norquist goes on to note that the six-page WisDOT document says, among other things, that planning for transportation in the region and achieving a consensus on that plan will "require addressing freeway-related items such as multimodal transportation, ITS (intelligent transportation systems), land use controls, demand management, as well as freeway capacity, design, and operation."

"Multimodal" is jargon for rail, bike paths, even sidewalks, along with roads and highways. We have a new multimodal station downtown, where buses and Amtrak converge, for example.

"Demand management" is more jargon for pricing tools that can influence driving decisions, such as tolls, parking fees, discounted bus passes, or ride coupons handed out by employers, to encourage transit use, and so forth.

Both multimodal investments and demand management tools can reduce the need for more freeways.

In other words, the document was pointing to integrated transportation options, with freeways and other non-freeway items, planned for and scheduled comprehensively together, to spark a dialogue and win a consensus from disparate interests.

This came on the heels of an earlier WisDOT initiative to blend freeway expansion and light rail that was vetoed by then Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley, leading to the current bi-county transportation stalemate and the evaporation of many millions of dollars in regional transit funding.

Anyway...Norquist goes on in his letter to ask Evenson why those many alternatives have been omitted in favor of freeway construction and expansion only.

Norquist notes that elsewhere in the WisDOT document the extensive list of the "elements" of "a surface transportation system:"

"...freeways, principle arterial streets and highways, minor arterial streets and highways, collectors, and access roads; and the public transit system such as inter-city buses, commuter buses, express buses and local buses, Amtrak, commuter rail, light rail, and street cars," according to the WisDOT document."

The WisDOT document then appears in full in the archive, as Norquist submitted it for the record.

Evenson's May 23, 2002 letter in response follows Norquist's letter and document.

The SEWRPC Executive Director respectfully tells Norquist that SEWRPC disagrees with the Mayor's interpretation of what the WisDOT document says.

And then we get to the heart of the problem when it comes to the one-dimensional highway-heavy transportation planning and implementation we have in this region:

Evenson tells Norquist that what SEWRPC has acknowledged in its study, as Evenson says SEWRPC does routinely, is that all the transportation elements are put on the table, and in regional transportation system plans - - but in the case at hand, SEWRPC, with WisDOT as its client, is focusing on "a subelement of the broad multi-modal transportation system," while recognizing the "anticipated contributions of the other elements..."

"Issues related to freeway reconstruction, including multi-modal transportation, land use controls, and demand management were to be addressed in the study, but were to remain in the "background" relative to the primary focus of the study, which was to be freeway design and capacity (see page 1 of the WisDOT document)," Evenson writes.

Then at p. 127 in the same archive, another amazing document appears.

It's a letter submitted by Michael Maierle, the City of Milwaukee's Long Range Planning Manager in the Department of City Development.

(Full disclosure: I also submitted a formal comment to the SEWRPC hearing process that appears on pps. 126-7, as a June 7th, 2002 letter. As a former Norquist staffer, I knew Michael Maierle, too. But for a couple of years prior to the SEWRPC hearing I had been working on the 2000 census for Norquist in the city's Department of Administration as Deputy Director, and hadn't seen these documents until yesterday. In fact, I had forgotten that I had even submitted a comment.)

Anyway, in his letter, Maierle brings up and submits the same WisDOT document - - and here is the stunner:

Maierle says when he worked some years earlier for WisDOT he was the transportation planning document's author!

"It is disturbing," writes Maierle to SEWRPC, "that the Commission chose to ignore this proposal for a balanced approach to regional transportation, and, instead, focused all their energy and public resources on a plan that is limited to freeway expansion."

I do not see in the archive a response to Maierle's letter.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the work digging up this revealing and insightful history.

I do believe we need a regional transit authority for Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee. The MRKTA? Or, perhaps, the MARTA (Milwaukee Area Regional Transit Authority)? In that case, I suppose we could consider including Ozaukee and/or Washington County.

Anonymous said...

Remind me: how is membership on SEWRPC's ruling body determined? Do elected officials automatically serve? Or is through appointment?

I noted Milwaukee's high fiscal contribution but low representation from an earlier post.

How much closer to taxation without representation do we need to get before a change is made?

Can't the situation be painted in those terms?

James Rowen said...

To Anon:

Good questions. Here are the answers. Sorry it took so long, but I've been out.

SEWRPC has 21 commissioners, three from each of its seven counties - - Kenosha, Racine, Walworth, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha. Commissioners serve for six years, and are often routinely re-appointed.

The appointees can be citizens or elected officials. For example, right now, Waukesha's county board of suprvisors chairman Jim Dwyer is also a SEWRPC commissioner representing Waukesha County.

Commissioners are chosen by the Governor, or by county boards, or by a joint process involving county governments and the Governor.

There is no representation for the City of Milwaukee - - representation is by county, and the appointing process involves counties and the governor only.

An annual payment is made by each county in their budgets to SEWRPC's annual operating budget. The operating budget makes up about one-third the SEWRPC total budget - - the rest comes from grants, contracts or payments from local, state and federal agencies for specialized studies or services.

In 2007-08, the total SEWRPC budget was $7.3 million. The counties' collective share share was $2,370,245, with $2.55 million from the feds, $1.9 million from other contracts, and $430,000 from state grants.

There is no private money in SEWRPC. It is 100% publicly-funded.

So...while each county has 14% of the seats on the commission board 3/21), the couties do not each contribute 14% of the SEWRPC operating budget.

The budget contribution is based on the percentage of property value eacj county represents in the seven county region's total.

Not by percentage of population, though there are similaries.

So Milwaukee County has about 36% of all that regional property value, thus pays that percentage of the operating budget.

In 2007-'08, that came to $837,000 of the $2,370,245.

Now... bear with me here...roughly half - - 48% - - of that property value is in the City of Milwaukee, so you can safely say that Milwaukee city residents 48% of $837,000 or $400,000+ that is sent through Milwaukee County to SEWRPC last year - - more than double the total annual contribution of five SEWRPC counties like Ozaukee($150,000), Walworth ($168,000, Washington, $174,000, Kenosha (183,000 and Racine, $198,000).

Waukesha County paid $670,000, still less than Milwaukee County.

Bottom line: by population, or property values, Milwaukee County and Waukesha County are under-represented at SEWRPC with the every-county-gets-three commission -seats' formula.

An the City of Milwaukee?

With zero reps, and 605,000 people - - again more than the total population of any other entire county - - even Waukesha County - - The City of Milwaukee really is under, or unrepresented at SEWRPC.