Wednesday, October 19, 2011

SE Wisconsin Regional Transit: Stability, Instability And Insanity

We offer you The Good, The Bad and The Ugly that passes for a transportation system in Southeastern Wisconsin.

First the stability:

Both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele are trying to work their way around state budget cuts to keep Milwaukee's bus system afloat by supporting a County plan from Abele to fill part of the funding gap with one-time federal financing amounting to a few million dollars - -  including transferring to bus services a relatively small amount of money that could have helped Barrett get a City streetcar Downtown moving towards its long-delayed start-up.

Give them both credit for cooperation, and to Barrett for giving ground on the streetcar, as it no doubt will give a few hours comfort to his rabidly anti-rail, anti-city talk radio critics.

But now the instability:

The federal funding became available to help Milwaukee bus services because an ideologically-motivated Republican state legislature killed planning for a commuter rail line to connect Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha, thus guaranteeing congestion on the I-94 corridor south to the Illinois line that is under $1.9 billion worth of reconstruction and widening for several more years.

So this short-term boost for Milwaukee bus comes at the expense of transit options regionally, and keeps them narrowed focused locally - - on buses, off rail - - all while the Legislature and Gov. Walker make transit services in Wisconsin fight for nickels and dimes and survival.

And the insanity: 

The threats to transit are taking place while billions in new highway construction roar forward unrestrained.

Walker fast-tracked the Zoo Interchange project (in a slightly reduced footprint, but still at an unaffordable cost of at least $1.7 billion) to appease the road-builders and Walker's base constituency in Waukesha County.

But these days, cars are running more efficiently, and the depressed economy has eliminated some driving, leaving road budgets planned without restraints short of money because most of the needed revenue to build them comes from gasoline taxes.

So is the highway budget taking the sort of cut you'd expect in our broke state?

Are you kidding?

The road-builders, serviced by campaign-donation-driven Legislative lap dogs, and by a Governor already double-talking around the issue, are looking to introduce tolls to fund these unsustainable concrete projects and dreams.

[Updated campaign donation data, here.]

The motoring public in all four directions from the Zoo Interchange confluence of State Highway 45, I-94 and I-894 has no real sense of the killer congestion that politicians are sending their way without mitigation because anti-urban politicians killed a light rail system along the I-94 corridor west from the downtown 15 years ago that is targeted for road expansion and rebuilding.

With more of the same ticketed for I-43 to the southwest into Walworth County, and to the north across Milwaukee and Ozaukee Counties, as the non-elected, 100% taxpayer-supported Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's $6.4 billion, unfunded freeway 'modernization' plan moves into future decades.

When, at the end, the Marquette Interchange will get placed on the schedule for rebuilding, and on, and on, and on.

In the end, we are probably going to get tolls for some or all of these major road projects while transit in all forms is further hollowed out, or blocked, as Walker did with the Milwaukee-to-Madison Amtrak line and the state's connections to the Midwest High-Speed Rail Network - - allegedly because they were just too darn expensive.

That's not a transportation system for a region in need of innovation to prosper.

It's a one-dimensional economic death sentence, a prescription for stagnation, a 'solution' that is not systemic and that picks people's pockets for road-building (and not for local street services) ordered from the top down that locks in - - along with congestion and pollution - - inevitable and costly expansion, patrolling, plowing, general maintenance, sprawl and development distortions.

All delivered by the small government crowd that, for political reasons, keeps the traveling public dependent on cars, locked in traffic jams, doomed to wasteful commutes and easily propagandized into paying for and suffering through repetitive cycles of road-building schemed by politicians who withheld choices while catering to special, self-serving interests.

There's your insanity.


Anonymous said...

Great summary of the insanity of incessant road building! A nightmare scenario in terms of cost to the public and years of traffic slow-downs to commuters.

Bill Sell said...

I like that Barrett and Abele are working in accord.

But part of the insanity is looking at the streetcar as "competing" with the buses.

Other cities that went through this process found a surprise: bus passenger counts went up (not down) after the street car began to run.

Streetcar riders came from many classes. The driver who has a choice will pick public transportation when it is easy to understand, convenient and practical. People who ride streetcars will eventually find the bus routes that supplement their transportation needs.

Bill Sell said...

I should have attributed that comment earlier. It is from the two conservatives who wrote it up in the book "Moving Minds", by Paul Weyrich and William Lind. An excellent resource for the public transportation advocates.