Wisconsin: A failed transportation state

December 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm

This project has been dead for a while, but it comes to mind every time I travel to Wisconsin.

The KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail project would have added 8 new stops along existing Union Pacific freight lines in Wisconsin. The stops would extend from the existing Kenosha Metra station on the UP-N line.

Map of proposed service. Source: Transit Now.

Map of proposed service. Source: Transit Now.

Nearly 2 million people living within 3 miles of all stops would be served. It would create easy access to Milwaukee’s south suburbs directly to its downtown. The Milwaukee intermodal station is a few minute’s walk to many downtown offices and would also be the terminus of the Milwaukee Streetcar, which would take riders into nice neighborhoods like the lower East Side.

Basically, it would give existing car commuters the option to take a train to Milwaukee instead of drive on the parallel Interstate 94. So why was it canceled?

Governor Scott Walker and the then-recently elected Republican-controlled state legislature stuck to their guns and cut transit funding by 10%, including dissolving all hope for the $284 million rail line. At the same time, a lengthy project to widen 35 miles of Interstate 94 from the Illinois border to Milwaukee by one lane in each direction, reconstruct interchanges, and add “aesthetic improvements” for those living adjacent to the freeway is carrying on, at a cost of $1,900,000,000. (Side note: it took two seconds to find the cost of the rail project; I could not easily find the cost of the freeway expansion on its own website or in newspapers).

From the dashboard: I-94 traffic on Thanksgiving eve. Light.

From the dashboard: I-94 traffic on Thanksgiving eve. Light.

According to the state DOT, the expansion is necessary because there’s simply more traffic. There is one major problem in using this logic to justify expansion: The road is free.

DOTs should always look at road pricing before looking to expand a roadway. All highways in Wisconsin are currently freeways; there is no cost to drive on any highway. My guess is that many trips would be eliminated or combined with proper road pricing, potentially eliminating the need for an expensive expansion of the roadway.

I’m willing to bet there are $284 million worth of inefficiencies somewhere in that $1.9 billion price tag for freeway expansion. Inefficiencies that could end up funding the KRM commuter rail line while alleviating congestion, cleaning the air, and giving choice to commuters in the three-county area.

Walker and his transit-averse allies could have stopped at killing the KRM project, but they’re planning freeway expansions in another direction: Milwaukee’s west suburbs.

At a price of nearly $2,000,000,000, Walker and the DOT want to build a double-decker freeway near Miller Park in the near-west suburbs of Milwaukee, an area poorly served by public transportation. Half a century after advocates successfully killed some urban freeways from eviscerating their neighborhoods, Milwaukee seems set to do it again. Peg Schmitt of the DOT says that it is “reasonable and prudent to allow for a 15% to 25% increase in traffic by 2030.”

Of course it is. They’re not building any alternatives to driving!

The state is also looking at rebuilding the Zoo Interchange, which does need to be repaired but certainly not at a cost of $1.7 billion. A lawsuit alleging that the process did not take into account residents who don’t drive has rightfully delayed the project, however.

Almost $6 billion to be spent widening freeways that already exist, giving no new options to those residents that may want to be carless or just use the car for fewer trips. Those that might prefer to hop on a train or light rail to see a game at Miller Park or go to the art museum downtown. A state that taxed consumers to give half a billion dollars to a private sports franchise as an “economic investment” cannot be bothered to build the most rudimentary of transportation services. A state that spent $118 million on an 11-mile highway to bypass Burlington, WI, a town of 10,000 people (I grew up here), saves drivers 7 minutes and adds 5 miles of driving, cannot be bothered to keep the bus service in its existing cities well-funded. It’s a state that “cannot afford” a $7.5 million annual subsidy to operate high-speed rail service between its two largest cities.

But it can spend $6 billion on freeways.