Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fix It First! Then give me some alternatives.

This article highlights the problem with transportation spending priorities. We keep building new highways, when we can't even afford to fix what we have now.

Building new highways to feed our insatiable appetite to drive everywhere, fast, without delay, at all times of the day and year is simply unsustainable, and not just for the environment. Your tax dollars are paying for this pyramid scheme.

And yet, the paltry sums that some want to spend on alternatives to driving - walking and biking for shorter distances, urban transit for daily travel in your metropolitan area, and reviving the rail system for intercity trips - are derided as wasteful spending and taking money away from "what is needed."

What is needed is to stop the need for constant new road construction. Fix the roads that exist, and give people alternatives. For Madison and Dane County, that means an RTA with rail, improved local bus service,  AND bus rapid transit in select corridors. Wisconsin and the Great Lakes area, that means a true high speed rail corridor, linking the largest cities outside the east and west coasts (and going through Madison.) For all cities and villages, walking and biking should be easy, safe, and a logical choice for trips under three miles. 

Want to know some real numbers? A report prepared by the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board shows a dream upgrade of walking and biking facilities for the metropolitan area (an area larger than Madison, but smaller than Dane County.) We could build almost everything on our wish list, and make crucial connections throughout the urbanized area of Dane County for $50 million.

Does that seem like a lot of money? It is, but for transportation projects, that's pocket change. That's for projects throughout the county, and would cover pretty much everything we have on the list for the next ten years.

Let's compare that $50 million for biking and walking improvements to some individual road projects.

The proposed interim "improvement" to Verona Rd/Hwy 18-151 - that is the stage 1 and stage 2 projects that are supposed to improve driving until the Wisconsin DOT can save up for it's big project, a complete rebuild of the Verona Rd and West Beltline interchange, and making Verona Rd and expressway from Hwy PD north in 2030 - are going to cost $130 million. Yes, 130 million dollars, and that's just to make commuting easier until 2030. Almost all of this is necessitated by commuters and peak hour traffic.

The 2030 project is too big and too far away to estimate to the cost, but I'm guessing in the $200-$250 million range.

By the way, the Wisconsin DOT has virtually no current information about any of these proposals on its web site. Even the presentation that they gave to the City of Madison at the combined meeting of the Transit and Parking Commission, Pedestrian-Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Commission, Board of Public Works, and Long Range Transportation Commission is not yet available, but I'\ll get that linked as soon as I can. How can the citizens of Wisconsin evaluate the transportation priorities of our state if we can't even find the information?

OK, then let's look at my favorite boondoggle: the infamous S&M Intersection. Yes, the intersection of County Hwy S (Mineral Point Rd) and County Hwy M (Junction Rd) is being handled by the City of Madison, and will cost Madison taxpayers about $10 million. Another $10 million is coming from the federal government through the MPO. That's $20 that could be spent on other transportation projects, but is instead being spent on making it easier for people from other parts of Dane County to drive into the city.

Twenty million dollars for one intersection, and it's not even a freeway. This intersection is also less than a quarter mile from the Beltline!

Farther down County Hwy M, the city has another project: Pleasant View Rd. According to the city budget,
This project will construct a new street between the existing Pleasant View Road and Mineral Point Road intersection southerly to the intersection of CTH M and Valley View Road. This new road will divert some of the CTH M traffic away from the busy Mineral Point and Junction Road Intersection.

So here we have another project, cost $8.6 million, that is needed just so that other $20 million intersection will work.

OK, some of the costs that previously were planned to be shouldered by City of Madison taxpayers are being picked up by ARRA (stimulus) funding. But again, we could have used that money elsewhere, if we weren't so determined to make driving easier.

Now let's go back to the article I linked to at the beginning of this post. You may not believe me, a lefty, enviro, alternative transportation advocate. Sure, I think we should change our transportation funding priorities to make driving both less attractive and less necessary. I think this should be done for the good of the environment, the social fabric of our country, to lessen our dependence on non-renewable resources, and to bring down the cost of transportation for both the taxpayer and the individual household.

But why listen to me? Here's a quote from a La Crosse County highway commissioner:
“You can’t keep building new,” he said, “if you can’t afford to take care of what you’ve got.”

And I have to agree with that. Fix It First. Don't build new roads until you can maintain what you have. Then start giving people another way to travel around, because more and bigger roads just isn't the answer.

1 comment:

  1. I think there are two issues with fix-it.

    One, fixing doesn't propagate our "growth" model. A fix does not create a new capital asset. It's pure expense. The budget is different, the funding is different... but you surely understand that as a former alder.

    Two, fixing is really inconvenient. So nobody really wants to do a lot of it. Think about what a pain in the rear the Campus Drive or Midvale work was this past summer.

    I don't know how we get folks on the buses or, better, on bicycles. I am a big believer in the value of bike-ways. You can cycle, comfortably, between 12 and 15 mph... that gets you anywhere in Madison in 15 or 20 minutes.