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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

WisDOT Ignores Transit Needs, Pushes Freeways

Common Council committee supports mass transit option with Zoo Interchange upgrade

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Representatives from the state Department of Transportation took some heat from a Milwaukee Common Council committee about the state’s plans to revamp the Zoo Interchange.

The July 16 meeting of the city’s Steering and Rules Committee included testimony that was critical of the DOT’s efforts to gather community input on its proposals to upgrade the interchange’s current six lanes or expand them to eight lanes. While the department hasn’t said which option it prefers, the assembled aldermen made the assumption that the DOT supported the eight-lane expansion along the 7 miles of freeway running through the heart of Milwaukee County, the busiest interchange in the state.

And the aldermen weren’t buying what the DOT was offering.

The majority ended up voting for a resolution that requests the DOT to rebuild the six-lane interchange with safety improvements; take the extra $150 million that would have been spent on expanding the freeway and use it instead on the maintenance of local roads and bridges; minimize the number of buildings that need to be acquired and demolished for the reconstruction of the interchange; make provisions for a transit right-of-way to preserve the option of installing mass transit service from Downtown to the County Grounds in Wauwatosa; and operate commuter rail from Milwaukee to Watertown to cut down on traffic congestion during reconstruction.

Whether that resolution will have an impact on the DOT remains to be seen. The department has extended the public comment period to Aug. 10 to allow more people to weigh in on their options.

“I’m not optimistic that [the resolution] will have any impact on the DOT’s decision,” said Alderman Michael Murphy, who crafted the resolution with Alderman Nik Kovac and Alderman Robert Bauman. “But I do think it’s important to be on the record as supporting this option.”

If the resolution is approved by the full Common Council next week, the aldermen will instruct the city’s lobbyists to push for the six-lane-freeway-plus-rail option, Murphy said.

The DOT did not respond to the Shepherd’s request for comment on this article.

Right of Way for Mass Transit

A major source of criticism stemmed from the DOT’s decision not to include future mass transit right-of-ways in its plans for the reconstructed interchange. While the DOT has offered four options to the public—no changes; rebuilding the interchange in its current configuration for $960 million; rebuilding the six-lane freeway with safety improvements, which would cost $2.16 billion; and an expanded, eight-lane version that would cost $2.31 billion—none includes plans to incorporate mass transit now or in the future.

“Why can’t that at least be an option for people to comment on?” Alderman Bauman asked Donna Brown, the DOT’s project director for the Zoo Interchange. “Why is that completely off the table?”

Brown responded that she has been instructed to present options to reconstruct the freeway system only. Bauman pressed Brown on who issued her “marching orders.”

Ultimately, Brown said, they came from “the secretary”—DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi, appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle. When Bauman seemed to threaten to hold up the process until mass transit was included in the DOT’s plans, Brown said the Common Council’s only recourse was to submit its comments to the DOT like every other individual. “That is the only way you can do it,” Brown said.

According to the committee’s resolution, the DOT should make provisions for a transit right-of-way that extends from the former West Allis Air Line railroad right-of-way, on the south side of the interchange, to the County Grounds.

Alderman Joe Davis wondered why the DOT wasn’t considering mass transit, given the “huge environmental consequences” of constructing a wider freeway system and encouraging more vehicle use.

Murphy told Brown that the council was “very frustrated” by the DOT’s rigidity on the issue. “We’re very frustrated that in every other city, when you look at transportation, it’s not just one thing. It’s not just cars,” Murphy said. Murphy said that approving the $2.3 billion expansion without preserving the right to add mass transit was shortsighted.

“That eliminates that [rail] option for the next 60 years,” Murphy said.

“A Big Joke”

Another point of contention was the lack of public feedback, despite the DOT’s efforts to hold hearings on the proposed freeway construction. According to Brown, during the DOT’s community hearings, 25 individuals preferred the eight-lane option, while four said they wanted a six-lane Zoo Interchange.

“You’ve got to admit it’s kind of pathetic,” said Alderman James Witkowiak. Alderman Jim Bohl called the public input process “a big joke,” “a big show,” an “embarrassment” and “a little ruse of pretending” to listen to “Joe Smith” and make them feel as if their input is going to matter. He charged that the DOT’s final decision to go ahead with the eight-lane expansion was “predetermined.”

Bauman argued that the DOT’s support of freeways is based on a false notion that expanded capacity will reduce congestion. “The public believes it and it’s just not true,” Bauman said.

To view the DOT’s plans for the Zoo Interchange, go to www.dot.wisconsin.gov/projects and click on “Milwaukee.” The public can comment on the project until Aug. 10. E-mail your comments to dotdtsdsezoo@dot.wi.gov; or fax them to 262-548-5662; or mail them to James Liptack, P.E.,%u2028WisDOT, SE Transportation Region, %u2028P.O. Box 798, %u2028Waukesha, WI 53187-0798.