Moving Cars vs. Investing in Places — The Struggle for American Cities

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to jam an even bigger version of I-94 through the Story Hill neighborhood in Milwaukee.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett are brawling in the press over a proposed highway project — a fight that exemplifies the enormous rift in America about what transportation policy should accomplish.

Walker still thinks about transportation projects the same way the interstate planners of the 1950s thought about them. In his view, the economy depends on moving cars and trucks.

So naturally, Walker insists on plowing a $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 94 through Milwaukee. Among the options on the table is a proposal to double-deck a portion of the highway through a densely populated neighborhood. According to Walker and the state DOT, spending a ton of money to stack highway lanes on top of highway lanes is a practical solution to aid the economy in this barely growing metro area.

“I think the last thing you want to do is have employers look to go bypass the city of Milwaukee when they’re talking about jobs and commerce here,” Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “So you’ve got to make sure there’s a good transportation system.”

One person who disagrees vehemently is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. In this case, Barrett represents a very different school of thought about transportation and planning — he thinks investing in places, not traffic movement, will make his city better off.

Barrett told the Journal Sentinel that he’s “mystified” by Walker’s refusal to pull the double-decker option off the table. He said he would do everything in his power to stop the additional highway deck, which would have a “negative impact on property values and disrupt the lives” of residents of the Story Hill neighborhood.

Admittedly, there’s more going on here than contentious views about transportation. Walker and Barrett are political rivals who’ve faced off twice for the governor’s chair. But in many ways they embody the broader debate about American transportation policy — the tug of war between the Eisenhower-era mentality of moving traffic at all costs, and the seemingly ascendant notion that public wellbeing depends on transportation decisions that make places healthy and economically strong.

Walker is a governor, and it’s state governments that tend to be most invested in maintaining the car-centric status quo. State DOTs (most of which used to be called “highway departments”) typically want the wider highways that suburban commuters, trucking companies, and the construction industry have a vested interest in. This coalition still wields most of the transportation planning power in most of the country. And that’s why a $1.2 billion highway expansion in a slow-growing metro region is still going to get built, while its impact on urban neighborhoods will barely be considered.

States have that kind of power. They control the lion’s share of federal transportation funding — about 85 percent — and they can spend it with few strings attached. Most states have a penchant for dropping a lot of money on splashy projects, not smaller improvements that make streets safer at the community level. While some state DOTs are much better than others, their professional coalition, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), remains a laggard when it comes to approving modern street designs that prioritize the safety of people over the movement of vehicles.

Barrett, meanwhile, operates at the level of city government. It’s America’s mayors and city agencies that are leading the way on implementing a new generation of street designs that prioritize walking, biking, and transit — best exemplified by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has put out transportation engineering guidance that leaves AASHTO’s in the dust.

But in the transportation realm, mayors and city agencies have considerably less power than governors and state DOTs. Less than 15 percent of federal transportation money flows directly to local governments. Hundreds of city leaders recently had to beg Congress for a bigger share of the small pot of federal funds designated for walking and biking projects. Many states don’t even fund the types of projects — transit expansions, for example — that would most benefit city residents.

These two schools of thought — state vs. city, traffic vs. places — are in direct ideological and political conflict over American transportation projects. There’s a reason it can get heated. Going back to Milwaukee, the Story Hill neighborhood really will be a worse place to live with another level of cars flying by people’s homes, and that’s going to mean lower tax revenues for Milwaukee and almost definitely more people leaving for the suburbs.

Another classic case of a state insisting on vehicle throughput at the expense of urban neighborhoods is playing out now in Cleveland.

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Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway (top) was demolished to make way for more valuable city habitat (bottom). Maps: CNU

The city of Cleveland has for years wanted to turn the lakefront highway that separates some of its neighborhoods from the Lake Erie coast into a surface street that people can cross on foot. Removing the barrier to the city’s Edgewater Park would be an enormous boon for nearby neighborhoods — including some of Cleveland’s best hopes for redevelopment. The mere prospect of improving pedestrian access to the lakefront helped spark $500 million in investment in the immediate area.

But Route 2, or the “West Shoreway,” is a state highway. So of course, Cleveland needed state money, and state permission, to turn the highway into a boulevard. And of course, the state didn’t see the benefit.

In 2011, a “nonpolitical” scoring process the state established to award transportation money gave the West Shoreway conversion zero out of five points in the economic development category. All that development happening in anticipation of a more pedestrian-friendly street apparently amounted to nothing in the state’s eyes.

ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said the state basically didn’t see value in the project at all. “Given the budget crunch states are facing, it’s really hard to justify throwing more money into a project that is designed to reduce speed, won’t alleviate congestion and in some ways downgrades a perfectly good roadway,” he told the Plain Dealer.

But there are plenty of examples of how turning freeways into more walkable streets helps economic development. The removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco set off a wave of waterfront development and led to a 300 percent increase in property values in the area. After Milwaukee decided to demolish the Park East freeway, land values in the footprint of the highway rose 180 percent. The replacement of Portland’s Harbor Drive with a waterfront park in the 1970s is credited with playing a major role in the city’s downtown resurgence.

In the end, the city of Cleveland only had so much power to negotiate, and the state had final say. The state did eventually hand over some money, but refused to sign off on some of the most critical elements of the project — namely the addition of intersections that would allow people to walk across the road. (Instead, the state built a second tunnel under the road.) ODOT officials nixed the idea of intersections, saying the road would “fail” — in other words, driving trips would take a little longer.

If the state had agreed to install the intersections, it might have resulted in a few minutes of delay for suburban commuters. And in the state’s mind, motorist delay matters more than developing a healthy city center with a strong tax base. That’s what cities are up against and the deck is stacked against them.