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WisDOT Falls Back on Old Data to Justify Double-Decker Urban Highway

Does this chart cry out for more roadway capacity to you? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Does this chart cry out for more roadway capacity to you? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a report yesterday, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now.

Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. Of course, at least one of these case studies was bound to be about Wisconsin…

In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has proposed expanding a segment of I-94 that runs east-west through the city. WisDOT wants to increase the capacity of I-94, widening the road in places and adding a second deck to the highway for a narrow stretch that is bounded by three cemeteries — at a cost of $800 million over and above just repairing the existing road.

Local officials have registered their opposition publicly, and have asked WisDOT to study alternatives, including those that would not expand the highway. Members of the community have advocated against the widening and in support of transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects — as well as repair of existing roads — instead. WisDOT projects that traffic will increase in the corridor, but traffic counts have been declining in recent years.

Other transportation modes could use significant investment. State funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) budget has been slashed, leading to route restructuring, curtailment of service and fare increases, all of which have made MCTS buses less convenient and less useful. Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Economic Development found that at least 77,000 jobs in the Milwaukee metropolitan area became inaccessible by transit due to cuts in service since 2001. (Fully 43 percent of MCTS riders use its buses to get to work; 52 percent do not have a valid driver’s license and 23 percent choose to ride the bus despite the availability of a car.)

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Wisconsin’s Highway Spending Mania Makes Less Sense Every Day

Road expansion projects in Wisconsin are gobbling up money that could be spent to repair what already exists and improve transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure.

Wisconsin isn’t known as a state that makes smart use of transportation dollars, whether it’s Scott Walker rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail service, denying funds for what would have been Milwaukee’s first suburban commuter rail service, or cutting millions in state aid for transit. Now a new report from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) sheds makes it perfectly clear just how imbalanced the state’s transportation funding priorities have gotten [PDF].

The report highlights wasteful highway expansion projects slated to cost $2.8 billion. That’s on top of the $2.5 billion spent on such projects in the past two budgets. These projects would expand highways in Madison, Milwaukee, and Fond du Lac where traffic has either stagnated or dropped. Wisconsin’s profligate spending on highway expansions not only diverts money from other ways of getting around, is also shortchanges maintenance of roads that already exist.

Wisconsin could afford to restore previously-cut transit funding, increase transit operations and capital funding, invest millions in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and increase funding for state and local roads — all for the next ten years — for less than half what it plans to spend on highway expansion in the next two years alone.

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Midwest Rail Advocates Take the Fight to Scott Walker

Rail advocates place this billboard along the corridor where Governor Scott Walker rejected a high-speed rail line. Photo: Environmental Law and Policy Center via The Political Environment

In November, voters in 36 states will head to the polls to choose governors. Among the state leaders up for reelection is Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who faces a strong challenge from Democrat and former Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke.

Walker is one of three Republican governors who rejected high-speed rail funds from the Obama administration in 2010 and 2011. Now rail advocates are looking to remind Wisconsinites of what they lost out on. James Rowen at the Political Environment writes:

Readers of this blog over the years have probably seen innumerable posts — many rolled into or referenced in a comprehensive, summary 2013 item — about Wrong-Way Walker’s reversal of federal funding for Amtrak service from Milwaukee to Madison.

Also lost after the 2010 gubernatorial election: years of good-paying rail line construction jobs and a now-shuttered train assembly factory and maintenance base in a low-income Milwaukee neighborhood, all victims of Walker’s “No-train,” Tea Party-inspired, self-serving and partisan attack on the federal government, out-going Gov. Jim Doyle and Pres. Barack Obama.

Rail transportation advocates haven’t give up, as seen in this billboard along the now-lost rail corridor between Madison and Milwaukee. Hats off to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, (ELPC), in Chicago, for the activism and media campaign.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network today: Dan Malouff at Beyond DC suggests keeping cars out of transit lanes using some of the same techniques cities employ to make protected bike lanes. BikeWalkLee has the numbers to prove that recent transit cuts in Lee County, Florida, are depressing ridership. And Bike Portland posts photos of the best bike parking at a Portland retail business.

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Freeway Fight: Scott Walker Wants to Drag Milwaukee Back to 1956

The mayor and residents of Milwaukee are fighting a massive urban highway project backed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

This site, in Milwaukee's Story Hill neighborhood, is where the state is proposing a two-level freeway. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

This site, in Milwaukee’s Story Hill neighborhood, is where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants a two-level freeway. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

Citing traffic congestion, the state is forging ahead with a $1.2 billion plan to expand Interstate 94. One design under consideration would stack freeway lanes on top of freeway lanes, double-decker style. The state says such a design is necessary to avoid moving veterans’ graves in cemeteries near the site.

Residents of Milwaukee staged protests against the state’s plans for Interstate 94 this week, saying the money would be better spent on transit and local roads. Yesterday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he opposes the double-decker design, saying it would hurt neighborhoods, and vowed to try to stop it.

“Not only will this option cost exorbitant sums of money, it will have a negative impact on property values and disrupt the lives of Story Hill neighborhood residents,” Barrett said in a statement. ”I continue to oppose the double deck option and will continue to pursue all options to prevent its construction.”

Despite his claims of fiscal conservatism, Walker has pursued a campaign of wildly expensive highway widenings in his almost four-year tenure. He said forgoing the highway expansion would cost jobs.

“The bottom line is I said we’re looking at all possible options,” Walker said. “The only one I have definitively taken off the table is we’re not moving graves for that site. I think it’s imperative we go forward.”

One alternative to the double-decker design is adding a lane in the highway’s shoulders and narrowing the existing lanes. But state officials say that wouldn’t add enough capacity for one of the slowest growing metro areas in the United States.

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How Road Planners Fail Neighborhoods

Why do neighborhood groups — especially in low-income areas — have such a hard time influencing the design of major road projects? An interesting case study from the University of Colorado-Denver sheds some light.

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Image: Google Maps

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Image: Google Maps

To examine the barriers to incorporating public health principles into transportation planning, researchers studied the Allied-Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, a disadvantaged but organized community.

Locals spent years preparing for the redesign of Verona Road, a wide street that carries 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles daily. Although Verona is a major, high-traffic road in the federal highway system, it functions not only as a thoroughfare for vehicles but also a community space, with residential development and neighborhood-serving businesses on both sides.

The study found that neighborhood residents had many concerns about the road, including difficulty and danger of crossing it, and that it was noisy and blighted. But they weren’t very successful at winning support for proposals that would address those concerns.

“Their main concerns were excluded,” authors Carolyn McAndrews and Justine Marcus wrote, “even if some of their ideas were adopted.”

The planning process itself — led by the state, which produced the official Environmental Impact Assessment — presented three major barriers for residents of the neighborhood:

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Milwaukee Transit Advocates Win $13.5 Million Settlement From State DOT

In a Wisconsin lawsuit that’s been closely watched by transportation reformers around the country, local advocates have extracted some resources for transit from a notoriously highway-obsessed state DOT.

After a court battle, the state of Wisconsin has agreed to provide $13.5 million for transit as part of the $1.7 billion "Zoo Interchange" project. Photo: Milwaukee Community Journal

After a court battle, the state of Wisconsin has agreed to provide $13.5 million for transit as part of the $1.7 billion “Zoo Interchange” project. Photo: Milwaukee Community Journal

Settling in federal court with Milwaukee civil rights groups, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation agreed to provide $13.5 million in transit funding as part of the enormous “Zoo Interchange” project.

The Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope had argued that the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange discriminates against people of color in the region, who disproportionately depend on transit.

A federal judge issued an interim ruling in favor of the plaintiffs last year, but allowed planning for the project to proceed. The negotiated settlement will provide $11.5 million over four years to expand bus service in the project area. It will also provide $2 million over four years to improve transit access more generally, through items like real-time arrival data.

“This is good news for a community that has the sad distinction of having a black male unemployment rate higher than 50 percent and the black/white employment gap being number one in the country,” said Patricia McManus of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin in a press release. “It is hoped that through the course of the funded four years, the importance of the routes will be readily seen by the involved counties and the state and efforts will be made to secure other funding for the continuation of the bus routes.”

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Wisconsin’s Outdated Transportation Priorities Are Alienating Young People

Over-spending on roads is a bad idea for any state DOT. But it’s an especially bad idea if that state needs to retain more young people who don’t want to be shackled to cars.

From WISPIRG's survey of 530 college students.

Most college students surveyed by WISPIRG said they value having transportation options besides driving.

That’s the situation Wisconsin finds itself in, as detailed in a report the WISPIRG Foundation released today called, “Driving Wisconsin’s ‘Brain Drain’: How Outdated Transportation Policies Undermine Wisconsin’s Ability to Attract and Retain Young Talent for Tomorrow’s Economic Prosperity.”

“Policy makers and the public need to be aware that state and federal transportation policy — dominated by road-building — are fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of students and young professionals in Wisconsin,” wrote WISPIRG Director Bruce Speight. “It is poor transportation policy and poor economic development.”

In a non-scientific survey of 530 college students in the state, conducted both online and on campuses, 47 percent of respondents told WISPIRG that having transportation options other than driving is “very important” to them when they think about where they’ll live after graduation. An additional 35 percent said it was “somewhat important.” Sixty percent said they’d be at least “somewhat more likely” to stay in Wisconsin after graduation if they could get around without driving.

The survey results echo those from a Rockefeller Foundation/Transportation for America study, released last month, which found that four in five respondents wanted to live in a city where they could get around without a car and two-thirds said access to high-quality transportation was one of their top three criteria for choosing a place to live.

Speight says state policymakers have ignored the needs and desires of the very people that Wisconsin should be trying to court.

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Wisconsin Responds to Public, Dumps Absurdly Wasteful Highway Project

Wisconsin's justification for the $125 million widening of rural Highway 38 was never very clear. Fortunately it looks like the state has dropped the project. Photo: America 2050

Wisconsin’s justification for the $125 million widening of rural Highway 38 was never very clear. Fortunately, the state has dropped the project. Photo: America 2050

“It is difficult to find any merit in the project at all.”

That’s what the Wisconsin Public Interest Group said about the proposed $125 million widening of Highway 38, outside Milwaukee, in a 2011 report [PDF].

The nine-mile rural road widening, from two lanes to four, was indeed a head scratcher. This area of the state is sparsely populated, surrounded by cabbage farms. What’s more, Highway 38 closely parallels Interstate-94.

“It is baffling why a major expansion should be a spending priority,” wrote WisPIRG’s Bruce Speight and Kyle Bailey.

But the Highway 38 road widening was nothing unusual for Wisconsin. The state is pursuing a plan to pour $6.2 billion into highway expansion in the slow-growing Milwaukee region. A review of plans by the Wisconsin Public Interest Group found the state consistently overestimated the need for these projects and that the justification for many of them was shoddy or nonexistent.

That should explain why advocates like Speight are so surprised and encouraged to learn the state has abandoned the plan for Highway 38. WisDOT spokesman Brian DeNeve told Streetsblog the reason was “local opposition to the project.”

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Wisconsin’s Misplaced Priorities on Display as Green Bay Bridge Sags

The Leo Fringo Memorial Bridge in Green Bay, Wisconsin is sagging 22 inches. Image: USA Today

In yet another reminder of what happens when states ignore their existing infrastructure while plotting massive road expansions, a section of heavily traveled bridge in Green Bay Wisconsin is “sagging” nearly two feet. Authorities have closed the bridge, which carries about 40,000 vehicles a day, after frantic calls from drivers.

USA Today carried this transcript from 9-1-1 calls reporting the problem early Wednesday:

Truck driver: I hope it’s not an emergency. I didn’t know who else to call. … It looks like there’s a part (of the I-43 bridge) that’s sagging.
Dispatcher: A part that’s sagging?
Truck driver: Yes, usually, I mean a bridge goes like it’s a hump. … There’s a section of the bridge that’s actually a dip.

Under Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin has been on a highway-building binge. Some $6 billion in projects are planned, including the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange outside Milwaukee. But in the race to expand, other transportation priorities have suffered, including transit and the maintenance of existing roads. All the while, Walker has resisted seeking new revenues through gas taxes or tolls to shore up the state’s transportation coffers.

Thankfully no one was injured in Green Bay. But perhaps it’s time Wisconsin rethought its grandiose plans for a double-decker highway in Milwaukee for less splashy alternatives, like making sure the state’s bridges are sound.

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From Bust to Boom: Rental Housing Takes Off in Madison

Madison, Wisconsin, is on a building binge. Developers are constructing so much rental housing that market observers fear that the housing shortage could quickly turn into a glut. One thousand units were approved last year for large apartment complexes.

Madison is building 1,000 new rental units to satisfy the urban-living appetites of young professionals -- but experts warn they shouldn't ignore those who need affordable options. Photo: Gary Brink & Associates

There’s a reason behind all this building, according to an article in yesterday’s Isthmus: Young professionals, especially employees of the Madison-based software company Epic, are clamoring for downtown living and shunning the suburban development that characterized Madison-area building until recently.

With an eye toward Epic professionals, though, developers are almost exlusively building high-end apartments. Rents like $895 for a studio and $2,165 for a three-bedroom might sound like a bargain to our readers in New York, DC, and San Francisco, but in Madison, that’s a hefty chunk of change. Those prices risk forcing people to pay more than a third of their incomes on rent, which is ill-advised.

There’s an answer to that, says Nina Gruen, a market researcher and real estate strategist writing in the Urban Land Institute blog this week. All around the country, younger folks are flocking to rental housing — and not just the high-earning whiz kids. Their parents are finally kicking them out and they’re getting their own places (if they’re lucky, with the help of a little allowance Mom and Dad gave as a consolation prize). They prefer the vibrancy of the city to the sleepiness of the suburbs. They’re starting families later in life, so they’re happy with smaller digs.

“Since 2009, there has been a steady increase in multifamily construction,” Gruen writes, “climbing from 109,000 units in 2009 to 245,000 units in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.” People under 30 are a primary market for those new urban units.

And Gruen has some ideas for how to build for the kicked-out-of-their-parents’-basement subset of the millennial generation – which she dubs the “echo boomers” — as opposed to the well-heeled software professionals. She says they’re looking for small studios — as in, 250 square feet — or else they want to share a two-bedroom among three or four people. They don’t care so much about closet space but a fast internet connection is essential. They prefer flexible, open space to formal entertaining areas, and they’re happy to share party rooms, bike storage, and fitness facilities with other renters. And Gruen gets into details others gloss over: “Multifamily rentals that permit dogs ought to consider including outdoor dog washes in order to avoid clogged sinks from dog hair.”

The moral of the story is this: Whether we’re talking about software engineers or coffee slingers, young people want to live in cities. After years of housing shortages and skyrocketing rents, supply is finally beginning to catch up to demand.