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Scott Walker’s Own Party Rejects His Milwaukee Highway Boondoggle

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee decided to kill funding for I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: ##http://wuwm.com/post/zoo-interchange-reconstruction-triggers-more-closures-some-openings##WISDOT via WUWM##

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee wants to kill funding for the I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: WISDOT via WUWM

Governor Scott Walker might be too busy campaigning for president to care, but the Wisconsin legislature handed him a rebuke last week, rejecting his plans for debt-fueled highway expansion.

The Republican-controlled legislature’s Joint Finance Committee trimmed about 35 percent off Walker’s proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing for highways. If approved by the Assembly and Senate — a big if — the committee’s budget proposal could spell the end for Walker’s plans to widen a section of I-94 in Milwaukee.

The finance committee also ordered an audit of the state DOT’s spending. Advocates from WISPIRG, Sierra Club, and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin want state officials to hold off on beginning construction on any new highway expansion projects until the audit is completed.

“We just can’t afford to keep repeating the mistakes that got us into this year’s budget mess,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a statement. “For years, we’ve wasted billions of dollars on highway expansions based on inflated traffic forecasts, and our existing infrastructure has been left to crumble as a result. This audit brings unprecedented and much-needed scrutiny to WisDOT’s highway expansion plans and the methods used to justify billion-dollar projects.”

The committee picked one highway project to axe: the $850 million expansion of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges, where traffic has actually been declining. The state had previously decided in February to scrap plans to double-deck that segment, opting for a different expansion method.

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Calculating the Big Impact of Sprawl on Cities’ Bottom Line

A Smart Growth America fiscal impact analysis found that high-density development produced way better returns for local political jurisdictions.

The fiscal impact of different development scenarios for a 1,400-acre parcel in Madison, Wisconsin, on government’s bottom line. The sprawliest scenarios provide the smallest public returns. Chart: Smart Growth America

When someone builds a new home, does it make the city stronger and more fiscally sound? Or does it drain public resources? The answer depends a lot on where it’s sited and, more specifically, where it lies in relation to other homes and businesses.

Smart Growth America has developed a fiscal impact model that helps predict how developments will help or hurt the municipal bottom line. The tool they developed [PDF] takes into account how density affects the cost of delivering city services, from streets and sewers to fire protection, school busing, and garbage collection.

SGA applied its model to a proposed 1,400-acre development in Madison, Wisconsin, called Pioneer Square. Researchers varied the density and number of units across five development scenarios, ranging from “low density” (about two housing units per acre) to “Compact Plus 50″ (about 7 units per acre).

According to SGA’s model, the higher density development scenarios would have a far better effect on the city’s budget [PDF]. Compared to the “low density” scenario, “Compact Plus 50″ would generate 233 percent more revenue per acre for the city.

SGA says the results are actually conservative because the tool assumes higher-density properties will have lower taxable value, due to smaller lot sizes.

Unfortunately, most cities don’t use very sophisticated methods to estimate the impacts of new housing developments. Instead, reports SGA, they assume each new home in the city will impose the same costs as the average home. That ignores all the variability in types of housing — and could leave cities with big financial liabilities down the road.

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Wisconsin Dumps One Urban Highway Boondoggle in Favor of Another

Wisconsin Department of Transportation rendering of their proposed, but now rejected, plan for a double decker freeway in Milwaukee.

Instead of spending $1 billion to create this double-decker section of I-94 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin DOT will spend $850 million to widen the highway. Rendering: WisDOT via Milwaukee Business Journal

One of the nation’s most poorly conceived highway proposals will become slightly less ridiculous. Transportation officials in Wisconsin recently announced they will no longer consider double-decking a portion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. The billion-dollar project would have raised the highway to building height in the Story Hill neighborhood.

Wisconsin DOT hasn’t seen the light, however. The state is still marching ahead with a tremendously expensive I-94 expansion project. Instead of spending $1 billion to double-deck the highway, WisDOT has settled on spending $850 million to repair the road and add a lane in each direction.

For comparison, the project will still cost about three times what Governor Scott Walker cut from state support for the University of Wisconsin in his recent budget. The road expansion is designed to save commuters just four minutes in each direction — assuming the state’s traffic assumptions are correct.

But there is very good reason to believe they are not. State officials are using old traffic data to justify the enormous expense. Traffic counts on the corridor actually declined between 2009 and 2012, the latest years for which data was available, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

The data Wisconsin DOT cites to justify the project only extends through 2010. The agency says that’s because a later construction project affected traffic levels on the road. But Metro Milwaukee’s population has barely increased in a decade, and statewide, driving has been flat since 1999, so it’s not at all clear why the state would be expecting such an increase.

“Rather than fixing it first and prioritizing the maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, the DOT wants to widen a highway where traffic counts have declined by 8 percent over the past 12 years,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a press release.

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What the Results of 8 Governors’ Races Mean for Cities and Transit

Yesterday’s elections returned some of the nation’s most anti-urban, anti-transit governors to power in races where they were supposed to be vulnerable. Pro-transit candidates were unexpectedly routed in some states, though a few did manage to hang on.

For more background on these races, check out yesterday’s election preview. Here’s what to expect going forward.

Republican Larry Hogan could be bad news for rail transit in Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia

Republican Larry Hogan could be bad news for rail transit in Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia

Maryland

The biggest upset by far was in Maryland, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was defeated by suburban real estate magnate Larry Hogan. Just a few weeks prior, Brown had been leading by double digits.

This stunning reversal has ominous consequences for transit in Maryland. Hogan opposes two major rail projects — the Purple Line Metro extension in suburban DC and Baltimore’s Red Line.

Transit advocates have their work cut out to convince Hogan to save both projects. But David Alpert, writing about the Purple Line in Greater Greater Washington, says the new governor has some incentive to let it proceed:

Now, it’s very close to actual construction, and the federal government supports the line. If Hogan kills the project, he’ll be turning down likely federal dollars that won’t go to other Maryland priorities, and he’ll be disappointing many voters in a much more visceral way than under [former Republican Gov. Bob] Ehrlich.

Wisconsin

Governor Scott Walker’s reelection by a six-point margin is certain keep the state mired in a 1950s-era, highways-only approach to transportation. Under Walker’s watch, Wisconsin has plowed billions of dollars into the country’s most pointless highway-building bonanza, while shortchanging transit so much that federal courts recently intervened. Perhaps the best symbol of his “leadership” on transportation is a proposed double-decker highway, a useless boondoggle for any city, let alone slow-growing Milwaukee.

His challenger, Mary Burke, a former executive for Trek Bicycles, likely would have pursued a more balanced approach.

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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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