Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yunker says his message was incomplete

Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said he sent an incomplete email when he said, in response to a query about the agency's stimulus spending outreach effort: "I expect the Milwaukee area to discuss this."

What he meant to say, according to Yunker, is this: “I expect the Milwaukee area Advisory Committee on Transportation Planning and Programming will discuss this at their March 20 meeting.”

Consider a skeptical eyebrow to be raised.

Anyway, Yunker said he did indeed as the committee for ideas on public involvement and outreach, but the members had absolutely none.

"We would expect to hold at least one public meeting perhaps during the week of April 6 to explain the funding available, describe the project selection process, and review the candidate projects deemed by WisDOT to be eligible for stimulus funding," Yunker wrote.

Local governments and transit operators -- not SEWRPC -- will submit project proposals to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Yunker said.

"The Commission will receive sometime after April 1 a list of the potential FHWA funded projects which WisDOT determines would be eligible for stimulus funding(projects which can be completed within the necessary timeframe)," he wrote. "These projects will be provided to the Commission’s Advisory Committee on Transportation System Planning and Programming who will determine of the potential projects those to be selected for funding. The Commission has always approved the recommendations of this Advisory Committee."

Monday, March 23, 2009

That $8 million must have been burning a hole in WisDOT's pocket

WisDOT's desire to build a taxpayer-funded interchange for an individual developer led the state agency to spend $8.8 million on preparation and land acquisition for the interchange, even though the mall it is supposed to benefit isn't there and may never be there.

How the heck did this happen? Hey, WisDOT, next time you are going to sing the blues about funding shortfalls, take a look at the millions you waste every year.

Thanks to Jim Bouman for digging this one up.

ACLU weighs in on SEWRPC dismissiveness

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's decision to decide how to spend $38.7 million in stimulus money without public input or outreach violated the agency's own written standards and may have violated civil rights law as well, according to ACLU attorney Karyn Rotker.

"The process for discussing the allocation of stimulus dollars, as well as, potentially, the allocation itself, appears to violate civil rights requirements," Rotker wrote to SEWRPC Executive Director Ken Yunker. "Please note that civil rights compliance requirements do apply to the stimulus program, including to the distribution of stimulus funds."

A memo from the Justice Department confirming the applicability of civil rights laws is here.

A SEWRPC committee began meeting Friday to decide how to divvy up the cash. When asked what kind of public outreach efforts the agency would make, Yunker said only that "I expect the Milwaukee area to discuss this."

The committee, according to the Daily Reporter newspaper, did agree to give special consideration to projects in economically distressed areas.

Wrote Rotker: "I strongly object to SEWRPC’s failure to comply with its public involvement program in general, to involve its Environmental Justice Task Force (which is meeting next week) in the process, or to ensure that diverse communities are involved in the decision making process...no notice was sent to interested parties, and there is no public comment period at the meeting (or at any other stated time)."

Rotker noted that SEWRPC failed to meet standards outlined in its own public participation plan for transportation projects. SEWRPC, in that plan, said it would provide "timely notification of, and provision of access to, Commission regional transportation planning and programming activities will be achieved to encourage early and continuous public participation."

SEWRPC also promised, Rotker said, that "beyond...efforts to notify and inform, and obtain input from, the general public, the Commission will seek opportunities to notify and inform, and obtain input from, those most likely to be impacted by transportation proposals. The Commission will, for example, contact community groups of an affected and concerned area, and offer briefings and presentations to those groups at meetings held expressly for that purpose or during regularly scheduled meetings of those groups. Outreach contacts and materials will be done in user-friendly, lay language. Outreach efforts will also particularly be made to notify and inform, and obtain input from, low-income and minority populations."

Friday, March 20, 2009

SEWRPC's total failure

Below is my question to SEWRPC Executive Director Ken Yunker re. the agency's efforts at communicating with the public about how it should spend about $67 million in federal stimulus funds. It's followed by Yunker's response, which demonstrates once more that SEWRPC just doesn't get it.

The question is actually the second time I asked it. The first time, Yunker just ignored it.

Q: And what will you be doing for public outreach and public input?
A: I expect the Milwaukee area to discuss this.

Totally, totally unacceptable. That is not public outreach. It is passive inertia. There is no vehicle for public input or feedback, nor is there any pro-active effort to inform the public what the agency is considering. At the very least, this topic ought to be on next week's agenda for the SEWRPC Environmental Justice Task Force.

It's not, though. Big surprise.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SEWRPC gets ready to decide: no public input, thank you

A SEWRPC committee is meeting at 9:30 a.m. in downtown Milwaukee tomorrow (March 20) to start deciding how to spend federal stimulus money to the tune of $38.7 million in Federal Highway Administration surface transportation program funds and $28.5 million in Federal Transit Administration formula funds.

You would think, given President Obama's emphasis on transparency in this process, that SEWRPC would go to great lengths to let people know what it is up to with this particular $67.2 million. As usual, however, public outreach and involvement is not the SEWRPC way.

As of yesterday, if you knew that the SEWRPC committee to debate the spending priorities was the Advisory Committee on Transportation System Planning and Programming for the Milwaukee Urbanized Area, you could go to the SEWRPC web site and find the agenda by clicking on the "Meetings and Agendas" link and then clicking on the committee name. The fact that the chances of you knowing all that are just about nil did not figure into SEWRPC's calculations.

SEWRPC, as far as I know, made absolutely no effort to publicize this critical debate, or invite public input. How about this for SEWRPC's stimulus motto? "It's your money -- now shut up about it."

Sometime between yesterday and today, after CASH inquired about it, the meeting notice was added to the front page of the SEWRPC web site. This means that if you happened to be perusing the front page of that particular web site in the past 24 hours, you could find out the time and location of this meeting.

You do read the SEWRPC web site on a daily basis, don't you?

I asked Yunker specifically what efforts SEWRPC was making to get public input, but Yunker didn't answer the question when he responded to my email. I asked again Wednesday, but did not get any answer at all.

The meeting, by the way, is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. in the Milwaukee County Downtown Transit Center's Harbor Lights Room, 909 E. Michigan St. The agenda does not include any time for public comment or input.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

SEWRPC: another shoddy job

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, in developing a key transportation plan, failed to consider key demographic data, overstated the amount of money invested in transit and misrepresented highway funding, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In one section of its 2009-20012 Transportation Improvement Program SEWRPC "purports to show that only about $227 million is going to highway 'improvements,'" ACLU-Wisconsin attorney Karyn Rotker wrote in comments submitted to SEWRPC. Buried elsewhere, she said, are estimates that, when added, put the highway total for 2009 alone at $346 million.

SEWRPC asserts in the document that transit will receive more than one-third of 2009 expenditures, Rotker wrote.

"By showing the distribution of only the 2009 expenditures -- which includes more than half the projected transit expansion costs for the entire four-year period -- the TIP hides the fact that transit expenditures will constitute a significantly smaller percentage of improvements than SEWRPC asserts," she said.

SEWRPC also failed to include key demographic data, including the following:
  • The US Census Bureau identified the Milwaukee-Waukesha region as, overall, the most racially segregated region in the country for African-Americans.
  • 60% of African-American adults in Milwaukee live in households with no vehicles, compared to 14% of adult whites in the city.
  • Fewer than half of African-American and Hispanic adults in Milwaukee County have valid drivers' licenses, compared to 73% of white adults in the county.

"Consequently, African-American and Latino residents of southeastern Wisconsin benefit far less than non-Hispanic white persons from highway expansion and major road improvements, while being far more burdened by reductions in transit service and fare increases," she wrote.

The federal stimulus bill allows surface transportation funds, not just Federal Transit Administration funds, to be used for transit development, she said.

"SEWRPC should prioritize transit development and necessary road repairs in economically distressed areas with these funds," she said. "At the same time, projects -- especially highway improvements and expansions -- that are not in economically distressed areas should be given far lower priority."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

More emissions on the way?

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation likes to try to peddle the hallucenigenic argument that adding more lanes and more cars to freeways will not increase unhealthy emissions because, in part, air pollution has been trending downward anyway (Yeah, and the housing industry will never crash because it was doing so well five years ago.)

There now is a proposal to increase to 15% the allowable limit of ethanol in gasoline. The current limit is 10.

The New York Times reported that there is some opposition to the proposal.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers joined refiners and several environmental groups in warning that a higher blend level of ehtanol in gasoline would "lead to increased air emissions from gasoline-powered engines and potentially endanger consumers using these engines."

WisDOT has shown very little interest in protecting people from harm that will be inflicted through its freeway expansion plans. Vehicle emissions are bad for living things -- it's that simple. The potential of increased emissions because of ethanol should give WisDOT pause in its freeway expansion frenzy, but don't count on it.