Coalition Calls on State To Scrap I-94 Expansion
As local roads are increasingly underfunded and plagued with potholes, state overspends on unneeded highways and freeway expansion, a coalition of groups argue.
Potholes increasingly plague Milwaukee and other cities in Wisconsin. One study found Wisconsin now has worse local roads than 35 other states. Potholes are a danger not only to cars, but to pedestrians and drivers as people try to swerve out of their way. The problem has also increased the repair bills for motorists whose cars can be damaged by hitting a particularly bad crack, rut or pothole.
That’s one of the reasons the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation (CMRT) is against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (WisDOT) proposal to add lanes to a 3.5 mile stretch of I-94 between 16th and 70th streets at a cost $850 million. The group argues the investment will raise debt and divert funds away from the repair and maintenance of local roads and also leave less funding for public transit.
CMRT held a press conference yesterday outside the WisDOT building underneath I-94 to urge WisDOT to re-evaluate the budget and refurbish local roads and increase accessibility to public transit instead of widening I-94. CMRT believes that the proposed development on I-94 will have a detrimental effect on taxpayers, businesses, and health.
There has been an emphasis on highway development in Wisconsin for years. In fact, a report by WISPIRG found that of the $6.5 billion allocated to major highway development projects and road repairs in the two previous biennial state budgets, $2.5 billion went to building big new highways. In addition, spending on highway construction between 1998 and 2013 has increased by 50 percent while state transit funding decreased by almost 2 percent.
Because there is no need to widen I-94, the development will divert taxpayer money from projects that would have more economic impact. A report by WISPIRG, Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin found that by scaling back highway expansion projects, the state could save taxpayers nearly $500 million in the coming biennium. The savings could then reduce the state’s reliance on bonding and spending money on interest payments, and instead be spent on local priorities like road repair, transit and bike/pedestrian infrastructure. “Wisconsin needs a responsible transportation budget,” said Elizabeth Ward, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter. “We should invest our limited transportation funds in the most critical priorities while looking for savings wherever possible. And we have to take a particularly hard look at multibillion-dollar investments in major highway expansion projects, especially since Wisconsinites are driving less.”
CMRT also believes that the development of I-94 will have a negative impact on businesses around the Milwaukee area. More funding for highways means less funding for fixing local roads and less accessibility for public transit, which can impede people from reaching their place of employment, school, and medical care. As veteran Capitol reporter Matt Pommer has written, “fifteen years ago, 40 percent of the state transportation fund was returned to municipal and county governments. Now, less than one-third of that fund returns to local governments.” That has had a negative impact on all local roads, but particularly in metro Milwaukee. He notes a 2013 study which found “more than half of the roads in the Milwaukee area were in poor condition. It suggested that road conditions cost Milwaukee-area drivers an average of about $700 per year in vehicle repairs.”
Jeff Roznowski, Alderman for Wauwatosa’s 6th District, noted the potential impact on business: “We need to recognize the economic impact of having good transportation connectivity options throughout the Milwaukee metro area, one that connects workers and shoppers from Milwaukee to retail and employment destinations in Wauwatosa, such as the Regional Medical Center and Mayfair Mall.”
Another issue is that over-spending on freeways and highways can reduce money available for public transit. “People of color and people with disabilities are much more likely to depend on public transportation,” said Karyn Rotker, Senior Staff Attorney for ACLU of Wisconsin. “We need a plan that meaningfully addresses the needs of those communities, not one that just spends hundreds of millions of dollars to build bigger highways.”
Less public transportation and more emphasis on cars can also lead to an increase in air and water pollution. “The resulting air pollution increases the severity of asthma, as well as causes increased rates of heart attacks, strokes and preterm birth – all with devastating results,” said Jeanne Hewitt, Associate Professor and Community Outreach Director of UW-M’s Children’s Environmental Health Sciences Core Center.
“Our problems can’t be fixed simply by borrowing or raising more revenue for transportation – we have to fix our spending priorities,” said Peter Skopec, WISPIRG Director, “The choice before state leaders is clear: Do we continue to spend billions of dollars on questionable highway expansion projects, above and beyond the cost of simply repairing these highways, and leave local infrastructure to crumble? Or do we choose to live within our means and make sure that our transportation dollars are spent in ways that actually benefit communities across Wisconsin?”