Tuesday, July 16, 2013

About The Madison Beltline Project: More Lanes, Big Spending, Done Deals

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation says in this State Journal story that it wants public input as the agency prepares studies and plans about dealing with congestion on Madison's 19-mile Beltline:

The state is poised to ask the public what to do with the Beltline, the bustling but aging east-west connection for the Madison area that is plagued by growing congestion and crashes....
Future traffic demands can’t “be served by the current facility,” a DOT document says.
Look at the language; the table has been set.

We heard the same jargon and buzzwords (in what world is a highway a "facility"?) in the Milwaukee area a decade ago as WisDOT and its well-paid consultants and allied regional planners went through the drama of wringing their hands about what to do with our 'aging, crash-plagued SE regional freeways.'

After hearings, presentations, lots of pubic input on options, and calls for balanced transporation and more transit instead of just adding more concrete, WisDOT went with the full concrete Monty: 

Rebuilding the entire system for safety as WisDOT defined it, plus 127 miles of new lanes - - and no added funding for transit - - for $6.5 billion.

When the final legs on the SE system are done in about 15-20 years, it will be time to rebuild and expand the first legs. 

No one was happier with the first $6.5 billion in spending, and no one will be giddier as the wheel turns again to 'capacity-building' than the road-building industry and the politicians from both parties who love road-builder money like life itself.

I do not know how WisDOT - - other than to satisfy some federal regs about project planning and spending - - can send out these calls for public input with a straight face.

So let's end this dance before it begins - - here's what will happen in a few years:

*  WisDOT will announce after preliminary in-house study (masking decisions already made and that will be implicit in that announcement's framing) that it wants input on three alternatives: 

a) Rebuild as is (#wink-wink and lol), but this least-costly option is DOA, already vetoed internally by WisDOT staff, consultants and the road-builders. It's a mere appetizer, when the five-course meal is right there on the menu.

b) Rebuild with spot safety improvements only (and since there's no anti-safety lobby, that spending is assured), but because there's no new 'capacity' added, this option is already seen by industry and WisDOT monument builders as insufficient. A safety improvement might be straightening a curve here or there, or moving a pesky exit site (and watch the land purchases!)

c) Rebuild, with safety improvements, and  - - the true sweet spot - - at least one new lane added in either direction for the full 19 miles, plus some new double-width ramps to accommodate traffic - -  including traffic (read:fresh congestion) induced by those cool, smooth, highly-publicized new lanes - -  and with no transit additions funded. 

WisDOT will also say that if you are going to take the time and money to rebuild as is, and/or with a few safety improvements, it makes sense to put in the new lanes and wider ramps at the same time.

Sort of like if you're going in for knee surgery, and have to he laid up for a little while, why not take advantage of the down time you know is coming, get that bad shoulder of scoped at the same time and get that face lift, too.

Roll it on to one bill for added convenience - - (maybe some costs can actually get moved over to the added surgeries' charges, wink-wink) - - and hey, it's a win-win! 

Don't you get it? WisDOT is just looking out for you. And for a grandiose facility, too.

* Citizens may weigh in with other priorities - - support for more transit, protection of environmentally-sensitive areas and saving money - - thus expanding alternatives a and b, but not c, and...

* WisDOT will announce after reading all the input that it has selected alternative c, and the Legislature will cough up more than $1 billion for the project. 

The full Monty - - Call it the Official Three Card Variety - - usually carries the day because it's the preferred choice of the government-road-builder complex. 

Influence trumps input. 


Anonymous said...

"Facility" is a standard transportation planning/engineering term. It's just industry jargon.

Anonymous said...

The New Improved Beltline project will get less scrutiny than the lighting on the Southwest Commuter bike path, or the bike boxes on E. Wilson St.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

As JR points out, freeway expansion projects NEVER follow the traffic extrapolations that they are based on. Even without greenfield development that follows the new concrete, the only thing that results is more driving, more frequent and longer trips.

There are two basic strategies for controlling freeway traffic that hold chances of success: Mass or alternative transit and targeted higher-density development.

Fewer car trips, shorter car trips.

Of course, the road building lobby and the anti-urban gated community set are never going to admit anything of the sort, so here we are. Saving some of Wisconsin's lovely environment is too expensive, but no road building project has ever been.

BigWheel said...

To: 'larry.barta@dot.wi.gov'
Subject: Beltline "redevelopment" information request:


I am giving you notice that I intend to ask about the impact of “Level 4” self-driving car technology on your planning process at the public hearings. These impacts should extend to Level 4 self-driving car technology being applied to shipping and mass transit and the resulting economies that will develop as a result. To date, no WISDOT official has been able to deliver traffic projections that take into account this technology that is likely to be widely adopted by 2030, when the pavement on the “redeveloped” beltline will barely be set. Given that reality, the impacts on safety and capacity must be included in any prudent analysis of “need”.

I also expect you to deliver a number for the net social return on investment for this project – which should be more than the hand-wavy EIS economic statements I see for other projects that seem rooted in 1970’s era economic development memes. Studies show that the return on highways has been dropping, and may now be below the cost of taking the money out of the private sector. If the beltline is to be expanded, I want to see the economic justification that includes the cost of the negatives elsewhere in the state. I am not going to take “we are not required by state or federal law to produce such a report” for an answer – I will not accept a lack of due diligence when it comes to evaluating the TRUE economic impact of highway projects when the data no longer shows a net-positive return for highway spending.



=Matt Logan

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should plan for flying cars, too.

Anonymous said...

Hey Big,

This might come in handy for monetizing benefits and costs.