You will remember that somewhere on the drawing boards at the WisDOT District Office in the State Office building in downtown Waukesha are the plans/goals/dreams known as the Zoo Interchange project: including a possible bells-and-whistles price tag of $2.3 billion - - a record-setting state highway expenditure for a project that will last years and tie up the busiest and most complex set of major highway intersections in Wisconsin.
Picture the Zoo Interchange as it is: then picture the whole bowl of concrete spaghetti in all directions on all three major arteries - - I-894, I-84 and State Highway 45 - - tossed, dug up, and carted off, then right-of-ways realigned and widened with an additional lane everywhere, some right through homes and businesses.
You think the state spent big bucks on the Marquette Interchange project - - a mere $810 million? Nah: the Zoo is gonna triple that chump change.
You think the I-94 North/South rebuilding and widening from the airport spur to the Illinois state line is a big, gridlock creator, for seven years, at $1.9 billion.
Nope: The Zoo will cost a good 15% more; and trust me: The resulting congestion from all directions through the state's busiest mega-change will make the current North/South work along I-94 feel like a quick trip to Miller Park to see a late September tilt against the Pirates.
Current estimates have the project beginning no earlier than 2012, and lasting four-to-eight years.
The great, missed opportunity in these multi-billion-dollar, vehicle-only spendfests is the lack of a nickel for light rail, as Gov. Tommy Thompson famously said when he pulled the plug in the 90's on his own plan for true regional transportation modernization - - light rail included - - for southeastern Wisconsin.
Instead, we see a cash-strapped state plunging ahead on a freeway system that is hardly free as it chases with taxpayer dollars after a false belief: that you can build you way out of road congestion - - only mild-to-moderate only in our neck of the woods - - by adding more lanes.
Instead, WisDOT will be creating local and regional congestion during the life of the project, then higher traffic counts when the ribbons are cut, as the new pavement induces travel, then development farther and farther from the commercial urban core.
Los Angeles, again, is learning that old lesson about trying to shed pounds by loosening your belt, as this New York Times article indicates, though at least LA, to its credit, is adding more light rail, commuter rail and buses lines - - each of which take trips off the road and help clean the air.
Both the particular LA freeway getting a new lane and the Zoo Interchange ticketed for rebuilding handle about the same amount of traffic daily (300,000 trips in the LA example, 350,000 daily in the Zoo), and though it's not a perfect 1:1 comparison, these few lines from the Times' story caught my eye as applicable to the Zoo:
"The goal would appear simple and even admirable: to add a 10-mile car-pool lane on the 405, among the most reviled and traffic-snarled freeways in Los Angeles, as it approaches and rolls north over the Sepulveda Pass, connecting the city’s west side to the San Fernando Valley.
"But given the nature of this particular operation — basically open-heart surgery on the central circulatory system of this traffic-obsessed town — it is anything but. What looms is an alleged three-year marathon of open and closed exit ramps, shut and narrowed lanes, banging overnight construction, detours sending traffic rumbling through some of the city’s most elegant neighborhoods, and a reminder of the price paid for the absence of meaningful public transit. It is all being chronicled in a stream of e-mail alerts and Twitter postings from transportation officials, who are doing what they can to keep everyone calm — with mixed success."
Had Tommy Thompson not killed off light rail in the 90's - - aided and abetted by tiresome, self-defeating anti-Milwaukee politics in Waukesha County - - there would have been light rail running at least to Brookfield and perhaps New Berlin, thus offering commuters an alternative to daily gridlock.
Traffic paralysis that will get worse, for years and beyond, as the Zoo reconstruction turns traffic East, North and South of the Milwaukee/Waukesha County line into a real zoo.
And please don't change the subject and gripe about the Amtrak upgrade finally taking shape from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison, and on to the Twin Cities.
That's long overdue, and serves an important, but different commuter and tourist market.
It's the local and regional rail systems that continue to be neglected in Southeast Wisconsin, even as major highway construction, for years, are making, and continue to guarantee that gridlock is the intentional, publicly-financed reality.