Functioning roadways and transit systems both vital to a growing economy

It is difficult to say who do you the most mischief: enemies with the worst intentions or friends with the best.” — E.R. Bulwer-Lytton

Let me just state this from the beginning. I believe Wisconsin needs to do much better when it comes to our policy toward mass transit, and that includes funding.

Unfortunately, groups like 1000 Friends of Wisconsin agree with me. Heavy sigh.

Life is difficult enough without people making inane arguments attempting to further a cause you agree with. This group’s most recent doozy was choosing to criticize, in a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, regional planners’ and the state DOT’s plan to fix North Shore I-43.

A few facts: The 14-mile stretch of road was designed and built in the 1950s. It is crumbling and needs to be rebuilt (and presumably redesigned). It carries about 85,000 vehicles a day. It is a parking lot at drive time. This is a fact, because I have to drive it about twice a week and … well … I know it. It is dangerous, as overly congested stretches of roadway tend to be. There were 1,087 crashes between 2006 and 2010, including four fatal crashes.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) is estimating that traffic along this stretch will increase approximately 1% per year between now and 2020 and then 0.6% per year between 2020 and 2040. This is much slower than the annual increase in vehicle miles traveled during previous decades due to, among other things, “slower population and household growth,” according to SEWRPC Executive Director Ken Yunker.

This is where 1000 Friends is calling foul. You see, they say that the population is growing even more slowly than SEWRPC says it is, and SEWRPC “needs to account for factors like the tendency for younger people to use alternative transportation.” Um, well … huh?

I don’t want to waste space or minutes of your life debating whether the traffic on this 14-mile stretch of road in Milwaukee will grow 0.4543% or 0.612% between 2020 and 2040. Suffice it to say that I will bet on the people who went to school for this and were hired to do it for a career — i.e., the engineers and planners at SEWRPC. Not to mention that these projections are lower than the federal government’s estimates for average growth in vehicle miles traveled over the same period.

The point is that, for the purpose of this specific project, it doesn’t matter. The corridor is packed to the gills today. What am I missing here? Nobody is arguing that it has exceeded its design life and needs to be rebuilt. Are we supposed to conclude that in order to be visionaries and build for a future Wisconsin where young people no longer drive, we should spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild a roadway — which is designed to last for 70 years — that will be congested and dangerous the first day it is reopened?



Gee, that wouldn’t tick off any of the tens of thousands of people idling their day away. How would you like to be the one answering those phone calls?

According to groups like 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WisPIRG), if we only stopped thinking like Ward Cleaver and began thinking like Phil Dunphy, we could reprioritize our current transportation revenues and accommodate the state’s needs. That sounds great — which is what is so harmful about their argument. Some choose to believe it.

What is so bad about that? It ignores the fundamental fact that we don’t have enough revenue to maintain our current state and local roads — even if we rebuilt these sections of interstate, like I-43 North, at the exact same specifications as they were built in the 1950s. Which would be, shall we say, not smart — even if we didn’t add that turn lane when we are in the process of redoing a county road. Pretending we do have sufficient revenue results in paralysis and does a great disservice to all of us, whether we drive, ride the bus, walk, or bike to work.

For the even larger segment of the population that doesn’t buy this argument, it makes them even more strident against transit investment. For all of you, I ask that you take a deep breath and keep an open mind. Just because their line of argument doesn’t hold up, there are, in fact, sound reasons to invest in both well-functioning road systems and transit systems. Areas like Salt Lake City, Utah have figured this out and are thriving. It is not an either/or. We need both to accommodate a growing economy.

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