Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Zoo Interchange would destroy part of butterfly habitat

A section of the Milwaukee County Grounds, near the Eschweiler buildings, is widely known as a resting place for Monarch butterflies as they migrate to Mexico.

Even WisDOT recognizes that, and then says it wants to destroy part of it.

From the preliminary environmental impact statement for the proposed Zoo Interchange reconstruction project.

During the study, a local conservationist and Monarch butterfly observer noted that a large migratory population of Monarch butterflies uses the Milwaukee County Grounds, near the
Eschweiler Buildings. This location is part of a corridor used by the Monarch butterflies as part of their migration path every year; most heavily used from late August through September as the Monarch butterflies migrate south. The greatest concentration of Monarch butterflies on the grounds can be found in trees near the Eschweiler Buildings. The butterflies use the trees in this area for roosting and adjacent meadow, including a berm along US 45, for nectaring. The berm may also enhance the attractiveness of the site by providing a wind break. While there is a population of Monarch butterflies in the study area, they have no special regulatory protection.

And then this:

The Modernization Alternatives would not affect the trees adjacent to the Eschweiler Buildings that are used by the Monarch butterflies for roosting. The southern half of the berm, between US 45 and the nectaring area, would be removed under both Modernization Alternatives. This would remove some of the nectaring area and part of the wind break that increases the area’s attractiveness to the Monarchs. The northern part of the berm would still provide a wind break for the roosting area and the northern part of the nectaring meadow.

And this:

3.17.3 Measures to Mitigate Adverse Wildlife Impacts
None identified.

So WisDOT wants to destroy part of the butterfly trail. What is the impact of that? Will the butterflies settle for only part of a berm and wind break? Will the added noise and pollution from the closer, bigger freeway scare them off or kill them? Will the cumulative impact of the potential freeway project and the proposed construction of the UWM engineering school harm the habitat?

WisDOT doesn't even consider those things. After all, as the agency notes, the butterflies "have no special regulatory protection."

They are just in the way.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Zoo Interchange public hearings this week

Public hearings on the Zoo Interchange reconstruction project will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at State Fair Park.

We use the term "public hearing" very loosely, because the Wisconsin Department of Transportation does not allow members of the public to listen to what other members of the public have to say. Hearing participants must give their testimony to a court reporter, in private. Yes, it can be intimidating. That is the point.

Anyway, the hearings will be from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday (June 23) and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (Wednesday, June 24). Both will be conducted at the Tommy Thompson Youth Center at State Fair Park Gate #5, 640 S. 84th Street in West Allis.

This is a good opportunity to weigh in against WisDOT's over-the-top plans for the interchange. The agency is putting the price tag of the project, with lane expanion, at $2.3 billion, which is so deceptively low it is almost laughable. The project will require huge expenditures by utility companies to move their infrastructure, adding significantly to the cost of the project. Not all of those costs show up in WisDOT project estimates, though, because they will be borne by utility ratepayers and not through the transportation fund.

In addition, WisDOT's plans will have a domino effect, if implemented -- WisDOT does A, which will require local municipalities to reconstruct B, C and D. Again, because those costs are local, WisDOT doesn't count them when totaling up Zoo Interchange costs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Senate budget gives Oak Creek an interchange

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation would pick up Oak Creek's $3.75 million tab for a new I-94 interchange in Oak Creek, under the version of the state budget adopted by the State Senate last night.

The amount is the local share that Oak Creek was expected to kick if it wanted the interchange included in the I-94 North-South reconstruction project. Oak Creek was expected to contribute 25% of the interchange costs.

Even WisDOT acknowledges that construction of the interchange at Drexel Ave. will hurt redevelopment of older commercial areas in the City of Milwaukee.

That not a single Milwaukee Dem spoke out against this proposal is shameful. That WisDOT is expected to pick up Oak Creek's cost for an unneeded, harmful interchange while at the same time the agency is slashing its mowing and routine maintenance efforts statewide is a bad, bitter joke on taxpayers.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Michigan cuts back on mowing, too

The Michigan Department of Transportation is, like Wisconsin, cutting back on its mowing schedule.

From the Detroit News:

When it comes to Michigan's freeways, cost-cutting is in and grass-cutting is out.
To save as many greenbacks as possible, the Michigan
Department of Transportation is making fewer trips to state roadways to mow the slopes, trim trees and pare bushes.
Grosse Pointe resident Suzi Padilla, who does most of her east-side driving on Interstate 94, understands the reason; she just doesn't like the results.

"It bothers me because it makes our city look bad," Padilla said. "For people coming in from Metro Airport, it's their first greeting to the city. It looks terrible. There's probably a lot of garbage caught in the high grass, so that when they do cut it, all this garbage is going to show up."

For MDOT, doing next to nothing has become the economical thing to do. The agency hopes to save up to $30 million this year in labor and fuel costs by mowing and trimming less often.
"The economy is in terrible shape, plus we've had two really tough winters in a row," said MDOT spokesman Bill Shreck. "I think we ended up going $30 million over budget for last winter's maintenance, which means our summer budget is much tighter. We will still concentrate on safety issues -- such as trimming and mowing to maintain good sight distances -- rather than mowing for cosmetic reasons."

According to Shreck, MDOT's maintenance budget is $300 million, which includes salting and plowing, repairing potholes, fixing guardrails, maintaining drains and mowing the freeways.
To save money, MDOT -- which owns or is responsible for nearly 9,600 miles of Michigan's 119,500 miles of roads as well as 4,400 bridges -- will cut once or twice a summer versus three or more in normal years.

Michigan's DOT argues that cutting back on mowing will provide more naturalized, environmentally friendly rights of way, but that is a load of highway litter. Maintaining naturalized green areas is amazingly labor intensive -- what the cutbacks in cutting will produce is a lot of invasive species running rampant through communities.

Monday, June 15, 2009

WisDOT on mowing (or not)

I asked WisDOT about its new (non)-mowing policy and got the following response by spokesperson Peg Schmitt.

The department has refocused its routine maintenance efforts to assure that essential safety activities are being accomplished. Mowing is one such activity where the benefits are generally related to aesthetics. In order to achieve the essential safety needs, the department has re-directed efforts away from mowing and certain other activities.

The information about refocusing work priorities was shared with counties in April. Counties were informed service to be provided is mowing only a shoulder cut, once a season, with one mower pass (no aesthetic cleanup). The exception is for spot locations where vision is a safety issue for that specific area. Mowing for woody vegetation to the clear zone shall not be done as a standalone work activity, but shall be accomplished with the normal shoulder cut.

The changes apply to the entire state highway system, affecting rural and urban highways, and all roads from low speed roadways to Interstate highways. As noted above, mowing that is directly safety related, typically to provide a clear vision corner at public road intersections, will continue as in the past.

The change is not driven by immediate fiscal concerns. Rather it is the obligation the department has to address the most essential needs first. It is true that fiscal realities play a role in the ability to serve the full range of desired activities. At the same time, it is irresponsible to continue providing lower value services when higher priority needs are not being adequately served. The responsibility to first serve essential safety needs before putting effort into tasks that address mobility, ride and comfort, or aesthetics is a long term obligation that will remain in effect and only change if there is some other determination as to the highest priority services to be accomplished.

There are a few other situations where an exception may be considered. For example, when establishing new turf the department typically mows the planted area for two seasons under a regimen that is designed to improve the quality of the turf. There is also the potential that exceptions could be warranted based on other conditions that could be related to the growing conditions or perhaps fire danger potentials. The department will continue to assess such situations as needed and determine whether exceptions may be warranted.

This service direction may also need to be modified due to new funding constraints that are contingent on the biennial budget that is under consideration by the legislature.
The guidance for when the mowing is done is developed by the department. The department’s regional maintenance coordinators work with individual counties to share the guidance and establish work priorities.

US DOT Secretary LaHood: ignored in Wisconsin

It's easy to appreciate US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's commitment to Transportation methods other than the automobile.

From a New York Times Q and A:

President Obama has talked about his desire to wean Americans off automobiles. What we’ve talked about is getting to a concept that we call livable communities, where people don’t have to get in a car every day. You can use light rail, you can use buses, you can use walking paths, you can use your bike.

The conservative columnist George Will recently denounced you as the “secretary of behavior modification,” in reference to your plan to have Americans give up cars.
When George came over here for lunch, I could tell from the tone of our conversation that he wasn’t particularly keen on what we were trying to promote here.

If the Obama / LaHood team think George Will is hostile, wait til it gets better acquainted with the Jim Doyle / Frank Busalachhi team. All highways, all the time. Alternative transportation to the state guys mean converting a six-lane freeway into an eight-lane freeway.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

WisDOT: the neighbor from hell

Just once.

That's how often the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will have its thousands of miles of rights of way mowed this year.

Just once. And it will be just a partial mow.

Interim Milwaukee County Public Works Director Jack Takerian told county officials that WisDOT delivered the news last month. The state pays counties to maintain state highways.

"Mowing - Efforts will be reduced," Takerian wrote in a memo. "The service to be provided is mowing only a shoulder cut, once a season, with one mower pass (no aesthetic cleanup). The exception is for spot locations where vision is a safety issue for that specific area. Mowing for woody vegetation in the clear zone shall not be done as a stand-alone work activity, but shall be accomplished with the normal shoulder cut. Such mowing will be in accordance with the thresholds and cycles prescribed in the WisDOT maintenance manual. Should the Milwaukee County decide to cut more than WisDOT has approved we would be doing so at our own expense."

Once a year. WisDOT officially risen to the level of "neighbor from hell." Not only will state-owned highways look awful, the invasives that WisDOT has been breeding there for the past several years won't even be cut down in a timely fashion, allowing them to flower, seed and spread.

There's more. WisDOT, ever happier building new highways, doesn't want the county performing routine maintenance on the existing ones.

"Preventative Maintenance and non-emergency concrete repair are considered non-critial and do not meet the State threshold for routine maintenance priorities," Takerian wrote.

The state is looking at other ways to get these things done, he said.

Meanwhile, while the state is looking, roads deteriorate.

And when WisDOT does get around to trying take care of its property, the problems will be much bigger and much, much more expensive to fix.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spend, baby, spend -- even if you don't have it

The federal Highway Trust Fund is near empty again.

From the Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration said as much as $17 billion in additional federal money is needed to maintain roads and bridges over the next two years, underscoring the challenges policy makers face as driving habits change.

The recession and gas-price increases over the past two years have caused many consumers to drive less and switch to more fuel-efficient cars. The result has been a fall in revenue from taxes on gasoline and vehicle purchases, which are used to fund state and local transportation projects.
The highway trust fund will need an injection of as much as $7 billion by September or states would not receive all the money they are counting on to finance construction projects later this year, the administration said.

In addition, the fund will need as much as $10 billion more, or roughly 25% of what it distributes to states each year for road work, in the 12 months after September, the administration said.

"The administration is working closely with Congress to solve this difficult problem and ensure that states have the resources they need to maintain our roads and highways," a White House spokesman said on Tuesday. He declined to offer any specific solution.

The State Department of Transportation is looking for help from the fund with the $1.9 billion North-South I-94 reconstruction and expansion project and will eventually have its hand out for the $2.3 billion Zoo Interchange reconstruction and expansion project.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Oil rises; WisDOT plows ahead

Oil hit $67.52 a barrel yesterday, a six-month high.

As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Oil prices are now double their 2009 low on the prospect that demand will soon begin to improve, providing relief from bulging crude stockpiles. For evidence, investors have looked to economic indicators showing a slower rate of decline in the U.S. and, more recently, signs that China's economic engine is revving back up.

Prices will undoubtedly soar much higher when people actually start finding jobs and housing stops cratering.

And still the Wisconsin Department of Transportation pushes freeways instead of transit. A bad policy decision if ever there was one.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Zoo Interchange plans omit transit considerations

The $2.3 billion price tag for Zoo Interchange reconstruction includes absolutely nothing for potential future transit integration.

Zero. Zip. Nada.

No potential for rail to the County Grounds, Mayfair, Highway 100, or Miller Park (east of the project area) is considered.

Employers, meanwhile, are crying out for a modern transit system that can get workers to and from jobs.

WisDOT, instead, looks only cramming more cars on to bigger roads, both freeways and local streets. More on this later.

The very likely long delay in Zoo Interchange reconstruction provides a very appropriate opportunity to reconsider and correct the bad decision to ignore transit in the study.