Monday, April 5, 2010

Talk Radio Has Role In Transportation Mess

The Public Policy Forum's Rob Henken wrote a column in the Journal Sentinel's Sunday Crossroads section about the region's political gridlock on transportation finance.

Henken has been involved and consistent on this since matter the mid-90's, as this news story shows - - a story that also shows how deeply entrenched is Tea Party mentality on the Right when it comes to transportation solutions.

Though, as always, the Right exempts road building and its tax-supported billions from the perils of Big Government.

But my point today is to provide reminder of the damaging role that talk radio has played in getting us to where we are today - - a one-dimensional, congested, rail-free zone, as I wrote about for Crossroads a couple of years ago - - even though local conservative talk radio hosts en masse hypocritically and predictably jumped on the Zoo Interchange problems and pointed fingers everywhere except at themselves.

And I'm not overstating conservative talk radio influence in SE Wisconsin when it comes to whipping up fears about light rail among core suburban listeners, and in downright panicking office-holders who might stray from the anti-rail template.

Some history:

Gov. Tommy Thompson and his state DOT at the time crafted a regional East-West Corridor transportation plan that called for more than a billion dollars of spending and improvements - - most for highways in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties, and also for a starter light rail system.

Both the Milwaukee County and Waukesha County Boards approved the plan conceptually, though with differing priorities and caveats to be reconciled, but Henken is right when he says that there was movement towards a compromise and comprehensive fix that included both highways and transit.

I sat in as a mayoral staffer on Tommy's presentation of the plan in Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist's office; Tommy brought along a brace of high-ranking officials and their time-line boards and their optimism. They left with an agreement from Norquist that while the Mayor wasn't happy with all elements of the plan, he would not attack it.

But talk radio went nuts over light rail.

They pressured legislators in Madison to block it - - at one point, then Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield) followed up and inserted language in the state budget outlawing any state spending on light rail consideration in Milwaukee County - - and pressed Waukesha County officials to kill the line.

Tommy quickly abandoned his own plan.

I remember Larry Sandler, the Journal Sentinel's transportation reporter, calling me for my reaction to a statement that Tommy's people were sandbagging the plan by pledging that not a nickel of state money would finance the plan's light rail piece.

I was dumbfounded, as I had heard Tommy just a few days earlier selling, touting it as he held court in Norquist's office.

Even efforts to the rescue Tommy's plan by removing Waukesha County soil from the light rail route wasn't enough to prevent its demise.

Finley put another stake into regional cooperation by vetoing the Waukesha County Board's approval; an override motion failed, and I remember hearing Finley calling into the Mark Belling show to give the 1130 WISN-AM talker the news.

And that was that: the region has gone all-highways, all-the-time-since - - enabled by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission acceptance of a $1 million planning grant from, who else? - - the state DOT - - to craft what became a $6.4 billion regional freeway reconstruction and expansion plan - - with no contemporaneous transit component to offer a modern transportation choice or to mitigate the congestion impacts from rebuilding 270 miles of freeways and adding 127 miles of new lanes over 25-30 years.

And, as Henken observes, without proper funding in place to pay for all the work.

It's an ongoing and flawed procedure, and one, by the way, to which Norquist forced SEWRPC to pay some attention in its final freeway plan recommendations.

Read the minutes of the final SEWRPC freeway advisory committee meeting: Norquist, not Scott Walker or the other so-called fiscal conservatives on the committee, led the fight to limit the plan's costs, and to force some recognition on the state to mesh road-building with strategic financing.

I was at the meeting. If not for Norquist, the entire idea of whether to urge the state to have a financing plan in place before it acquired property and fired up the bulldozers wouldn't have happened.

I'm amazed at the continuing participation of so many of these anti-compromise, big-road spenders in the region's transportation politics, as if their responsibility-free roles in planning and politics around here never happened.

Walker, of course, is running for the Republican party's 2010 nomination for Governor, and led the recent opportunistic, partisan, talk-radio fueled hissy fit over the Zoo Interchange troubles.

He must have forgotten his role in expanding the SEWRPC staff recommendations for the number of new mile lanes to be built, though he did not take the lead to help ensure that the legislature made sure there was money on hand to build them.

Thompson is mulling a run for US Senate. He presided as Governor over a massive increase in statewide road spending, but neither he or his party when it controlled the Legislature provided the money up front to pay all the bills.

Yes, yes - - Tommy was a big booster of Amtrak, but he cherry-picked an existing and successful Milwaukee-to-Chicago service while abandoning balanced transportation, running from light rail and kneeling before talk radio.

Finley quit the Waukesha County Executive position and took over the Milwaukee Public Museum.

I often wonder if he regrets not being able to ride a train into the downtown from the Waukesha County - - a downtown, with the Museum as an anchor destination, that would have benefited from a light rail line that would have connected the convention center, Miller Park, and the Milwaukee County Zoo, and Medical complex, among others.

Waukesha County Board Chairman James Dwyer is still there, having caved in on the Finley veto override.

He's a power also on the board and the committee structure in the Southeastern Regional Planning Commission - - a body which continues to endorse freeway expansion (recommending a fast-tracked $23.1 million Interstate interchange to service a stalled mall at the stalled, transit-free Pabst Farm development in a stalled economy in Waukesha County), and goose along more sprawl development through Great Lakes water diversion recommendations to please the political and business establishment in City of Waukesha - - but which has little authentic stature on transit and rail.

Here's an idea: Get serious about balanced transportation in this region, which means turning off talk radio.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."

Boldness is a quality lacking in the Milwaukee region. Hesitation reigns supreme and we all suffer from the consequences. There is a reason Chicago became the city that it is despite St. Louis being a better location for becoming America’s crossroads. Leaders in Chicago were cut-throat and had the balls to get things done. They continue to have that leadership in Daley. I don’t care if you’re left, right, whatever – if you’re bold, have a vision and an unwavering conviction to get things done – you got my vote. I am sick and tired of the petty shit that these squirmy politicians fight over. It’s like watching mangy dogs fighting over a piece of rotten meat.