Tuesday, February 17, 2009

SEWRPC Will Have Direct Control Of Some Stimulus Transportation Funds

I am being told that formulas in the just-signed federal stimulus bill will give regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO's) a direct say in how a big chunk of new federal transportation stimulus dollars will be spent.

Forgive me if this sound arcane or irrelevant. It is not.

The goal of that section of the legislation is to get some transportation spending decisions closer to the grassroots than state Departments of Transportation, which have a tendency, as does Wisconsin's, to pour transportation funding into new highways.

Wisconsin has already laid down rules for stimulus spending it controls that rewards freeway contractors and denies Milwaukee money for shovel-ready local road and bridge repairs.

But will the good institutional intentions written into the stimulus bill for MPO funding control play out well in Wisconsin, and particularly in a seven-county region around here where the MPO is the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission - - SEWRPC?

Since SEWRPC wrote the ongoing $6.5 billion freeway expansion and rebuilding plan, and as recently as last year recommended spending $25 million on a useless interchange to serve a stalled shopping mall project at Western Waukesha County's Pabst Farms project, I'd say the law of unintended consequences may be giving a biased and distant agency a fresh budget with which to build more roads and kick off or reward urban sprawl.

I have often pointed to the absence of any City of Milwaukee representation on the 21-member governing body running the taxpayer-funded SEWRPC, and argued often on this blog and elsewhere that Milwaukee should withdraw from the Commission, create a similar body of its own, and thus implement an urban agenda in the state's most-urbanized region and gain more control over land use, water rights, housing, employment, development and transportation programming.

Milwaukee and a broader urban agenda often get short-shrift at SEWRPC, where heavily-rural counties have a majority of Commission seats, and where exurban and suburban policies are implemented by a self-perpetuating network of managers that reflect the commission's structure.

A summary of my argument was published in the Journal Sentinel Crossroads last June, here, and I used the example of the Madison-based Capital Area Regional Planning Commission as an example of an alternative that rewarded urban needs.

That Commission has turned over the entire transportation component of what is a one-county (Dane) commission and MPO to the City of Madison.

Imagine if such an arrangement were the way regional and transportation planning were guided here: we'd have less spending on regional freeways and more on city-focused programs such as transit and local street services as the priorities.

Milwaukee leaders and local groups are going to have press SEWRPC hard for a fair portion of stimulus dollars that will come into SEWRPC's hands for transportation purposes.

And make sure that transportation doesn't get defined as moving water, so that federal stimulus dollars are handed through a back door to Waukesha, or a new regional authority created by SEWRPC to move diverted Lake Michigan water through the region.

That's not as far-fetched as it sounds: SEWRPC financed close to a third of its just-concluded $900,000 water supply study (which recommends Lake Michigan diversions) by tapping into a Milwaukee County mapping kitty funded with property deed registration dollars.

Mapping became land use/became water policy planning because water policy influences land use and changes to maps, so it would not surprise me if someone in Waukesha city government or at SEWRPC isn't already thinking...stimulus funding for regional transportation planning might justify regional regional water uses because water availability influences development, transportation and land use - - all of which are SEWRPC tasks.

Do we really think Waukesha wants its tax and water rate payers to pay the cost of diverting and returning Lake Michigan water? That could be $60 million, or more if the Underwood Creek return flow discharge point in Wauwatosa falls through.

Tragic would not be too strong a word if an already arrogant agency that treats the city like an unwanted step-child (SEWRPC approved freeway expansion in the city on valuable real estate over the formal objections of both the Milwaukee County Board - - 15-10, and the City Common Council unanimously) got unencumbered millions to spend and ignored the state and region's largset city?

And spent those public, stimulus dollars based on the wishes of unelected, non-City of Milwaukee managers and commissioners?


Anonymous said...

A question for you Mr. Rowen: How many jobs-new jobs-will be created by the Governor's/SEWRPC's I-94 expansion plan?
And how many jobs would be created by spending that money on mass transit?

I-94 is shovel ready. What about KRM?

James Rowen said...

To Diesel 10 (And how are Thomas and the rest of the gang??);

I have not seen reliable figures.

Some portions of I-94 N/S are shovel-ready, barely, but remember, it's an eight-year plan, during which KRM could also be constructed.