Thursday, February 19, 2009

Doyle, tolls, and Lexus lanes

Gov. Jim Doyle told the JS that the state doesn't have enough transportation funding. Along the way, he said the Zoo Interchange project might have to be delayed (given his recommended funding levels for the Environmental Impact Statement it will be delayed), gutted the reasoning behind expanding North-South I-94, potentially nullfied that project's Environmental Impact Statement and floated the ideas of toll roads and Lexus lanes.

And all in one interview!

Impressive, but it took Mayor Tom Barrett only three sentences to remind Doyle of the embarrassing neglect the state has heaped upon local roads. From hizzoner the mayor:

"We are still missing the fundamental point. We have to have a better balance between local road maintenance and state highway expansion. I'm certainly not excited about any type of toll roads for state highway expansion without addressing the fundamental issue of how we pay for local road maintenance."

Perhaps Doyle's most outrageous idea was turning the planned fourth lanes of North-South I-94 into Lexus lanes, open to motorists willing and able to pay special tolls to use them. The Department of Transportation's shoddy planning and work on the EIS for the project already has led to a civil rights complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union. That complaint, among other things, alleges that WisDOT itself acknowledges that adding the lanes will have only minimal effects on travel times and will hurt efforts to redevelop older commercial strips in Milwaukee, where joblessness and poverty are high. WisDOT did not evaluate the project or transit alternatives as required under civil rights law, according to the complaint.

The ACLU also notes that WisDOT rejected a request from the City of Milwaukee -- the state's only minority-majority city -- not to add the lanes.

And now the governor is talking about economically segregating those additional lanes! Milwaukee residents will suffer most of the consequences of freeway expansion -- the increased noise, air pollution, potential flooding and polluted runoff -- but would be least likely to be able to use that added lane, given the poverty statistics.

In addition, a segregated lane could defeat the stated purpose of expansion, which is to ease overall congestion. If the lane for rich people moves smoothly, but the lanes for the rest of us don't, has WisDOT accomplished its mission? If one lane moves smoothly, but three lanes don't, doesn't that gut WisDOT's already absurd argument that adding lanes reduces air pollution? And do we really want to damage economic development efforts in Milwaukee by expanding the freeway so rich people can drive faster?

WisDOT argues that adding lanes is good for neighborhoods because, without the additional capacity, cars will leave crowded freeways and use city streets instead, jamming local streets and irritating neighborhood residents (WisDOT generally overlooks the benefits of street traffic to businesses that rely on it). If the added I-94 lanes are only for people who can pay for them, what will keep people on the other three still-jammed lanes from leaving the freeway to crowd on those same city streets?

It appears very much that Gov. Doyle approved a freeway expansion so unnecessary that the additional lanes can be reserved for a select group who will be charged to use it so the state can pay for the unneeded expansion. The real solution would be to drop expansion plans, spare Milwaukee the economic and environmental costs and use the money for some real transportation improvements -- namely, transit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Doyle's transpo budget:: highways dominate

From Gov. Doyle's Budget in Brief:

A $569 million increase for highway projects over two years. Local road aids, though, would be cut 1% in each year of the biennium. (Times are tough, but only for some.)

Some $22.1 million would be passed on to Milwaukee, Madison and Round Lake Beach for federally-eligible highway infrastructure projects.

The $100 million capital grant program designed to benefit the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority stays in the budget, but the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's recommendation for 3% annual increases in transit operating assistance is reduced to 2% in 2010 and 3% in 2011.

Doyle would give regional transit authorities in southeastern Wisconsin, Dane County and the Fox Valley the power to levy up to a 0.5% sales tax within their individual service areas. The RTAs also would be able to receive state and federal aid, issue bonds, and receive fare box revenues.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A WisDOT proposal for futility

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is proposing to, by 2013,"develop a more robust program related to the restoration and preservation of high-priority plant communities" on DOT-owned property and rights-of-way, according to its Connections 2030 draft plan.

Such a program is much-needed. Inexplicably, though, the department is proposing to wait until 2014-19 to "cooperate with DNR to develop and implement a rapid-detection and early response program to better control non-native invasive species."

WisDOT hasn't made much effort to control invasive species for a few years now, and it shows in their rapid spread along highways (transportation routes very nicely facilitate the spread of invasives) and beyond. A decision by WisDOT to try to restore native plants, but not to try to control invasives at the same time is pure folly and a waste of time and money. The invasives will (again) wipe out the native plants and march on.

WisDOT already likely has cause millions of dollars in environmental damage through its hands-off (non)treatment of invasives. It's proposal to wait five more years before doing any real work to control them will have devastating consequences.

The public has a chance to weigh in on this and all the proposals in the plan. WisDOT is accepting public comment through Feb. 27. You can email them to connections2030@dot.state.wi.us or send them by snail mail to:

Connections 2030
WisDOT Bureau of Planning
P.O. Box 7913, Room 901
Madison, WI 53707-7913

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A big "duh" for WisDOT

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is proposing to do what it should have done 20 or 30 years ago. (That is an improvement over much of its transportation planning, which is perfect for the 1950s.)

The draft "Connections 2030 Long-Range Multimodal Transportation Plan" contains this proposal, startling only because it prompts one to wonder, "What the hell has WisDOT been doing all this time?" Here it is:

"Develop a system for identifying maintenance costs associated with new and existing highways and bridges. This will enable department staff and decision-makers to better understand the maintenance costs associated with new construction, as well as the costs associated with the maintenance of the existing state trunk highway system."

It's a little scary that it took the department until 2009 to figure this one out.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

WisDOT backs away from Pabst Farms interchange

State Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi says the state may not build the Pabst Farm interchange after all, according to the Waukesha Freeman.

Gov. Doyle's wasted opportunities

Gov. Doyle is blowing a prime opportunities all over the place to jump start transit projects in southeastern Wisconsin.

His list of transportation projects to be funded with federal stimulus money contains not a single transit project. None. Zippo.

As the design phase for Zoo Interchange reconstruction advances, his Department of Transportation is simply refusing to do a transit alternatives analysis or to incorporate any transit components into the design. With the Zoo, County Grounds and higher education institutions all in the interchange area and Miller Park just a throw from the outfield away, this short-sightedness is almost beyond belief.

More evidence that the real issue in Wisconsin transportation funding isn't transportation. It's buying road builders and keeping them in the "D" column.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

WisDOT kills worst Zoo Interchange design; bad ones remain

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has eliminated from consideration the Zoo Interchange reconstruction alternative that would require the destruction of the most homes and businesses -- including a $10 million to $12 million building in the Honey Creek Corporate Center -- according to agency officials.

Instead, WisDOT has come up with a potential hybrid that calls for an eastbound diamond interchange, westbound access to I-94 via one-way service roads and a "Texas-U-Turn" at 76th Street. A Texas U-turn essentially forces a driver who wants to exit at one place -- say 84th Street -- to travel well past that to another exit point, such as 76th Street, then loop back on another road to 84th Street.

The hybrid would require the destruction of 13 homes on the south side of I-94 east of 88th Street, WisDOT officials told the Common Council's Steering and Rules Committee last week.

WisDOT still also is considering an alternative that would not require any buildings along the eastern leg to be razed, but that would rely on one-way service roads and a Texas U-turn that would require those drivers wanting to exit at 84th Street to travel to 76th Street before swinging back.

City engineer Jeff Polenske cautioned that while the option minimizes property impacts, it could have significant negative traffic impacts on North 76th Street.

All of the illustrations WisDOT presented to the committee showed the freeway expanded to eight lanes, though WisDOT official Donna Brown said six lane configurations still were under consideration.

Interestingly, when Ald. Robert Bauman asked about the eight-lane configuration, WisDOT consultant Brad Heimlich said he wanted to show city officials the "worst case scenario."

The number of lanes the department chooses would not affect the number of homes and businesses that would be destroyed, but the eight-lane version would be about 25 to 30 feet wider than the six-lane version, Heimlich said.

He also said that in the area between N. 76th St. and N. 84th St., the footprint of the freeway, including the Texas U-Turns, could be about double what it is now. The State Fair Park parking lot could be significantly smaller as a result of the project.

Brown ruled out an analysis of alternative transportation modes during the environmental impact study for the freeway reconstruction. She also said inclusion of transit components in the Zoo Interchange study could not be accomplished within the construction timeline Gov. Doyle set. That timeline, however, was entirely political. Doyle announced it at a press conference when Republican pressure to accelerate the Zoo Interchange project was shaping up to be a campaign issue in the 2006 race.

Aldermen made it clear they did not think any of their concerns about the potential loss of tax base, harm to the city or transportation alternatives would matter to WisDOT. Ald. Michael Murphy said bluntly that Milwaukee was "screwed."

Later in the meeting, Ald. Robert Bauman said that WisDOT really doesn't care what city officials think.

"They could care less what our opinion is," Ald. Robert Bauman said. "This is all a dog and pony show. They're required to come here, so you can check off 'talked to city council' on the check list of the draft environmental impact public participation."

Council President Willie Hines agreed. "It's clearly obvious that we do have to hear this," he said of WisDOT's presentation. "Some of us didn't want to, don't want to just play the game. It's not a game to us...We're beginning to question even more as to whether or not anyone's listening or whether or not anyone cares. That's kind of disturbing, very disturbing."