Monday, December 22, 2008

Contemporary Needs, 70's Plans

Steve Hiniker, Executive Director of the land use and environmental group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, has summed up in the Sunday Journal Sentinel Crossroads section our state's need for more rational public spending on transit, local roads and parks.

While we are getting ready to pour $2 billion into I-94 south to Illinois from Milwaukee, with another massive expansion and rebuilding also scheduled for the Zoo Interchange west of Milwaukee, the county parks have gone to hell, the bus system is collapsing and potholes can't get filled fast enough.

And you watch: a huge share of federal stimulus money will not get allocated to sustainable, green and long-term job creation in this region. It will be gifted to the road-builders for major highway projects that continue to pull the economy farther from its center, adding sprawl costs and making Milwaukee's minority poor less likely to reach jobs in the out counties.

It will not be used as a one-time down payment for a better future for the region.

The fundamental policy problem in southeastern Wisconsin is an out-dated regional land use plan that is driving highway expansion, water diversion and sprawl.

With sprawl as the outcome, and a $6.5 billion highway expansion and rebuilding plan underway, there are few incentives or opportunities to boost transit and add rail. Instead, the likelihood is more of the tired status quo - - even as builders postpone subdivisions and retail slumps.

Going hand-in-hand is the regional water supply plan, which, just like the highway scheme, is designed to move wealth away from the urban center to development at the edges - - areas not served by transit.

No wonder the Milwaukee County parks and bus systems are failing: if the economy is being shifted away by the government, why reinvest in the infrastructure in Milwaukee County?

The craziest thing about this blindly wasteful policy-making is that collapsing housing prices, unpredictable lending and costly fuel have made suburban housing too risky and expensive for a middle-class that is shrinking by the hour.

We have 2009 needs, but are under the thumb of 1970's planning and spending, with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission at the center of this spectacular, failed disconnect.

With its suburban and exurban commission majority ruling the roost, SEWRPC wrote the land use and water plans, has failed to deliver a housing plan since 1975, and perpetuates its old-fashioned mission through senior management self-selection.

There can be improvements and solutions, but these will require political courage to break the mold and the region's slumber:

* The freeway expansion should stop in favor of transit investment, rail initiatives and local road repairs at the top of the list, not as after-thoughts.

* The water supply study should be shelved.

* The SEWRPC-blessed $25 million interchange to a stalled shopping mall on former crop land in the Pabst Farms development in Western Waukesha County needs to be scrapped.

* The Land Use Plan should be re-written by a newly-constituted planning commission with a 21st century mindset that places the highest priority on economic and environmental sustainability and development.

That will require a clean sweep of SEWRPC management and the installation of a different body setting policy, making hires and recommending how and why transportation funds are spent in the region.

It would make no sense for the federal government to bail out General Motors if it wanted to bring back the 1970 Oldsmobile, or if Chrysler chose to spend its federal money to start building Dodge Darts.

By the same token, we have to stop financing antiquated planning and infrastructure in southeastern Wisconsin, too.

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