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Wisconsin residents call on Governor Walker to oppose highway expansions

Tuesday morning, a group of Milwaukee residents gather in the parking lot of the Tripoli Shrine Center near 27th and Wisconsin, Fuel Cafe coffee and signs in hand, to depart for Madison. Some are from the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation, others are simply there to have their voices heard. But everyone boards the yellow school bus united in their goal: call on the governor to support a more strategic approach to transit spending.

After giving interviews to one of the local stations and devising chants appropriate for the occasion, they set off. The conversation consists of media cycles and sign ideas; the intermittent stench of manure, invariably, reminds you that you’re still in Wisconsin. They make a stop in Waukesha and are meeting supporters from La Crosse, as well – the mood drips of optimism and resolve. Though there is a lingering feeling that the governor will simply continue to turn a deaf ear, it just doesn’t seem in their nature to not keep trying.

United in Opposition

Shortly after eleven o’clock, residents from around the state called on Governor Walker, in a press conference from the State Capitol building, to stop proposing new taxes and, instead, spend the transportation money we have in a more common-sense fashion.

“Let’s be clear: we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” said Bruce Speight, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG). “We’re here, today, to call on Governor Walker to stop wasting taxpayer money on highway boondoggles we don’t need, fix our local potholes and get our transportation priorities straight.”

The proposed $1.2 billion I-94 expansion project and other highway expansions around the state have come under fire from Milwaukee residents and other groups, including the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation, the Coalition Opposed to the West Waukesha Bypass and the La Crosse Coalition Opposed to the North-South Corridor, because they say these proposals fail to address glaring transportation needs. These groups say the money could be spent more strategically by also improving public transportation infrastructure and repairing roads. Just last week, Governor Walker floated the idea of eliminating a state gas tax and turning it into a sales tax on consumers at the pump, in order to generate more revenue, a move Speight says distracts from the real issues.

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Juan Carlos Ruiz, chair of the Cleaner Milwaukee Coalition and a member of the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation, made the point that simply focusing on highway projects, as opposed to a more all-encompassing approach, is crippling our local economy and the communities – and businesses – that would stand to gain. “In Milwaukee, when you go to the inner-city communities, what you see is only two bus lines going outside Milwaukee. But the jobs are moving from Milwaukee…what we need is a well-thought-out public transportation system that is wholistic to help us build our communities and strengthen our businesses, to help our people move from the inner city neighborhoods to jobs, because we want those jobs…and we have the labor force.”

But Milwaukee, the state’s oft-maligned largest metro area, was not the only city represented. Shannon Majewski with the Coalition Opposed to the West Waukesha Bypass and the Sierra Club’s Coulee Region Group Transportation Chair Pat Wilson were also in attendance and spoke at the press event.

Majewski said her group opposes the West Waukesha Bypass because the proposed route for the project, estimated at $53 million, will run through a dense residential neighborhood, on the north end, and a wetlands area called the Pebble Creek Environmental Corridor, an area recommended for protection in 2008, toward the south. “We have a water issue, already,” said Majewski, “It’s not resolved. [The bypass is] gonna degrade the ecosystem of the wetlands, it’s going to further compromise our water and it’s gonna tear apart our neighborhoods.”

When asked if she thought the proposal was in line with other decisions the Walker Administration has made, placing development before natural resources, Majewski said, “I do see that it’s on par with that. I see that it’s––and I don’t understand it other than it is with the intention to drive in, I suppose, more commerce. But…we have to stop this, at some point. There’s only so much money to be spent and…there’s only so much commerce to be had and we have to question the morality of putting these major roadways right through neighborhoods. We’re destroying what limited resources we have; we are destroying the character of our residential communities and at the cost of building roadways to get somewhere faster.”

Wilson was part of the opposition to a proposed DOT expansion of the north-south corridor in La Crosse that began in the 80s. He said that, though area voters overwhelmingly blocked the measure (by a vote of 63 percent against) in 1998, it appears the state’s transportation department is looking to expand the same stretch 15 years later. “You don’t hire an architect unless you’re going to build a building and you don’t hire the Department of Transportation to do a study unless you’re going to build a road,” said Wilson.

That highway project, now estimated at more than $140 million, would also cut through an existing wetlands area, another consideration in addition to the overwhelming public opposition less than 20 years ago. But Wilson said he believes there are other factors at work. “Well, I think one of the things pushing it – besides the road construction industry – is a big lobby in Madison and I’m sure they’re pushing to get new roads to build,” he said.

Wilson says there are other areas of need they’d like to address, instead, again calling for a more comprehensive approach. “We want to maintain our current roads, we want to improve where it’s reasonable to do that; what we want to do is make our current road systems suit the needs. One way to do that is expanded mass-transit…facilities for bicycles, pedestrians – we are getting more bike routes in Lacrosse and we’re getting more people using alternative methods of transportation.”

Contrary to WisDOT projections that touted a potential traffic increase of 29 percent from 2000 to 2010, a recent WISPIRG study found that traffic increased only 1 percent from 2000 to 2012 while Wisconsinites, on average, drove 500 fewer miles in 2010 than 2004 and public transportation use among young people increased 40 percent, nationwide, from 2001 to 2009.

“Transit systems are vital to our transportation system,” said Speight, in response to a question of whether there was an increased sentiment, among legislators in Madison, that public transportation is nothing more than a social service. “Not only do they connect workers to jobs but they provide a critical part of our transportation network to make sure some people can get to the grocery store, get to the doctor or the hospital – it’s essential to our transportation network. It is not a public service, it’s a part of our transportation system just like any other part of it. And, on top of that, there’s growing evidence to suggest that not only is our population aging and more and more people will be dependent, as they age and become unable to drive, to get around by modes other than a car but we have a young generation of Millennials who are looking to locate in communities where they have access to transit, communities that are more walkable and bike-able. So, we risk losing the young talent that we need for Wisconsin’s future economic prosperity if we don’t provide those options.”

A Community, Ignored

Milwaukee residents board a bus at the intersection of Teutonia and Capitol on the city's northwest side.

Milwaukee residents board a bus at the intersection of Teutonia and Capitol on the city’s northwest side.

Some Milwaukee residents oppose the I-94 double-decker expansion because they say the city’s public transportation infrastructure, which lags behind many comparable metro areas, and already-present damaged roadways could use improvement. The Coalition for More Responsible Transportation, along with local residents, hosted an event on Oct. 14 in the Story Hill neighborhood, one of the local communities that stands to be adversely affected by the expansion, to ask the DOT for answers. Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb was invited but did not attend.

This response, one of indifference, has been the norm when groups or residents from Milwaukee County, which saw 38.1 billion bus riders in 2011, have brought concerns or alternate proposals to the DOT and Governor Walker concerning the expansion proposal. Both WisDOT and the Governor’s Office maintain that the project, which is slated to begin construction in late 2018 or 2019, is still merely in the planning stages, yet many alternative proposals, including those that the DOT brought forth, have already been passed-over.

Majewski expressed the same frustration, as her coalition brought an alternative proposal and petition to the DOT that is no longer being considered. “Absolutely. It did not get the consideration it should have and I think it resolves all the issues at a fraction of the cost,” she said.

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Monday, Milwaukee Stories talked to city residents about the highway expansion.

“I want the roads and the highways to be fixed,” said Tuyonia Carter, while waiting for the 12 on Teutonia and Capitol. Carter has a car, which she primarily uses, but, right now, she has to use the bus system because her vehicle is in the shop. “We have a lot [of ditches and potholes] in the inner city places that are messin’ our cars up, right now, and need to be fixed,” she said. “I actually messed up my whole front end due to that.”

Calvin Weston, whose primary source of transportation, at the moment, is the bus, echoed the idea that the money could be used to fix the many streets in disrepair but says he wants to see more buses more often, as well. “It’s real slow,” said Weston. “Better quality service, I’d say – they could use that money on doing that. Hire more employees, have more buses goin’ out, or something, cause it don’t make sense to be out waitin’ for a bus for an hour, especially when it’s gonna start freezing soon. Who wants to be out here freezing their butt off waitin’ for the bus?”

And, while waiting for the bus with his family at 27th and Wisconsin, Martin St. Charles Waters said, between work, school, appointments and any other trips that need to be made, they spend as many as six to seven hours on the bus every day. “Most of the buses are always overpacked,” said Waters. “If they’re not overpacked, they’re runnin’ late. If they’re not running late, they don’t wait on you when they are early. You know what I’m saying? So, it’s always something. Either you’re gonna miss a bus or it’s gonna be too packed so you’ve gotta let that one go past – it’s just always something.”

But frequency and overcrowding aren’t the only issues. Access is a big problem, says Craig Williams, who rides the bus often. “It’s hard to get a bus past Froedert,” he said.

Among those whom Milwaukee Stories was able to interview, residents agreed that the price tag was too high and that, in their communities where access to quality jobs and education are also acknowledged issues, they’d like to see money being spent in those areas, first.

“That’s a factory, ain’t it?” said Williams, of the $1.2 billion cost. “Create a factory instead of a freeway; there isn’t nothing wrong with those freeways out there.”

And, though Waters acknowledged the poor quality of roads and buses, that’s not what was at the front of his mind. “I would rather my kid learn how to build a road somewhere down the line than to be out here looking at a car drive on a crisp road,” he said, adding, “At this point, roads are garbage, man – I mean, we already know that.”

After the press conference on Tuesday, Ruiz, again, put the issue in perspective. “What is the fairness of it, right?” he asked. “You invest that money into public transportation and other creative ways to [get around] in a more wholistic way, you can create jobs, you can strengthen the economy, you can make our neighborhoods stronger and everyone moves forward.”

Governor Walker’s office was contacted for comment but referred our requests to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, for which they provided a disconnected phone number.

Update (Oct. 25, 2014): A Department of Transportation spokeswoman responded to our inquiry, Friday, via email saying, “Those projects that involve expansion are carefully selected and reviewed. Projects undergo an extensive review process that considers current and future traffic volumes, crash history, environmental and economic impacts and public input.”

Update (Oct. 27, 2014): The spokeswoman also cited a DOT report on travel time reliability that was released this year.

Update (Oct. 31, 2014): A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that the Pebble Creek Environmental Corridor was recommended for protection by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The Pebble Creek Watershed Protection Plan was completed and issued by the Southeast Regional Planning Committee and the Waukesha County Department of Parks and Land Use in June 2008.

 

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