If You Pave It, They Will Come

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

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» SEWRPC’s Freeway Expansion Plan: Impact on Milwaukee Neighborhoods

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Marquette Interchange

“The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or a lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just. . . . As a simple matter of course mass man unites himself with any “organization” modeled after the mass itself; there he obeys whatever program is placed before him. . . . With [this] loss of personality comes the steady fading away of that sense of uniqueness with which man had once viewed his own existence, which had once been the source of all social intercourse. It is taken increasingly for granted that man ought to be treated as an object. Man confronts this attitude in the range of authority exercised over him; he may merely meet it in countless statistics and tables or he may experience its culmination in an unspeakable rape of the individual, of the group, even of the whole nation.” -Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World

I-43 Under Construction

Original I-43 Construction

If you haven’t heard much about the proposed freeway expansion for Milwaukee County and surrounding environs, I’m not surprised. I guess the freeway isn’t too sexy, and technically it doesn’t bleed (unless you count the money it could bleed from the city, county, and state). Local media has done an abysmal job of covering the issue. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which purports to cover important city and state news, has given one of the most important issues facing the city — at least fiscally and arguably in other ways as well — sufficiently mild coverage that it has remained below the radar screen of most people I know. The freeway expansion plan, which was drafted by the South East Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), would initiate the biggest construction project the Wisconsin DOT has ever undertaken. When I was in Journalism school at UW-Madison, one of my profs — a reporter for the JS, by the way — repeatedly drove home one important point in my public affairs reporting class: follow the money. Because how it’s being spent and what’s being done with it tells you a lot about what’s important to people. But few people are following, even at his own paper. While casinos have made the front page for days, the amount of money under discussion there is significantly smaller than the billions that would go into the freeway study. The freeway expansion is generally buried on the third page of the metro section as a “transportation” story. It’s much more than that. But with the exception of a couple good columns by Whitney Gould in June, August and October 2002, the city’s main news source has done little to expose the actual effect of the expansion. Canal St. Before SEWRPC ExpansionGould has referred to the plan as a “ruinous $6.5 billion freeway expansion scheme” and asserted that “DOT appears bent on a full-employment plan for roadbuilders at the expense of our sense of place and quality of life.” The issue she kept raising is one I think is incredibly important: where is this money coming from? And why spend it when there’s plenty of convincing evidence that freeway expansion does nothing in the long term to alleviate freeway congestion? Numerous studies, available both on the Internet and in transportation trade publications, show that freeway expansions at best have a negligible effect on congestion, and in some cases increase it — the, “if you pave it, they will come” idea. Just one example: the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) conducted a 15-year study of congestion in major metropolitan areas. An analysis of TTI’s data for 70 metro areas over 15 years shows that metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. In fact, areas with greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet they ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, more wasted fuel, and increased travel delay! In Milwaukee, the impact of the proposed expansion on people, neighborhoods, local businesses, and tax rates for city and county residents could be incredibly devastating. Canal St. after SEWRPC ExpansionSo what does it take to get media attention here in Milwaukee (other than a large blue shirt — which would cost more than 28,000 times less than the proposed freeway expansion)? Even after more than 200 residents showed up for a public hearing before the full County Board, there was little indication that media realized that this is an important issue that merits substantial coverage. Three weeks later, when the County Board of Supervisors voted against expanding highways in Milwaukee, TMJ4 had a near-substance-less news report on the Supervisors’ activity that day, mentioning the bomb scare at the courthouse and the Blue Shirt issue (which the Board spent all of three minutes tabling). There was nothing about the freeway vote, which took upwards of four hours of deliberation on the part of Supervisors and which at least 50 people took off from work to attend. Kudos to both of Riverwest’s Supervisors, Gerry Broderick and Willie Johnson, for voting against lane expansions anywhere in Milwaukee County. The number of opponents to the plan continues to grow. The NAACP and Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council have soundly condemned the plan for overlooking city and minority residents’ concerns. Mayor John Norquist, who has proposed a more sensible, alternative plan focused on the Marquette Interchange, commented that the crafters of SEWRPC’s plan “must be so isolated (in their suburban lives) that they don’t know what they’re doing.” (SEWRPC has offices in Pewaukee that are not even accessible by public transit.) “I think the model for SEWRPC is Detroit,” he said. “If your idea is, how can we maximize sprawl in Waukesha County, this is it.” The best news coverage I have seen on this issue comes from co-chair of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways (CASH), Gretchen Schult, who writes for the Story Hill Neighborhood Association website. That website was the first to carry the information about the money that flowed into Gov. Jim Doyle’s coffers in September from the road engineering firm that had been working with SEWRPC on the plan. (For the story, which lists donors and amounts, which total over $9,000, see The SEWRPC proposal has enough glaring inadequacies that people from all over the political spectrum can band together to reject it. At a minimum, accepting and implementing the plan is a fiscally insane move. But it could actually increase congestion in the future. With the city of Milwaukee struggling with budget problems, with the county reeling from payouts and other budget difficulties, and with the state looking anywhere and everywhere for places to cut funding, it makes sense to settle for safety improvements, not an expansion. Lastly, a comment on process: I do not believe the definition of “consensus” is one where suburban counties get together and overpower the city (all six suburban counties voted to expand the freeway in Milwaukee County). Scott Walker could override the Board’s vote, and the suburbs could override the City’s wishes. It is up to us to keep that from happening.

Editor’s Note: After this month’s issue went to press, the Journal printed an editorial opposing the SEWRPC freeway expansion plan. For subsequent, March 2003 coverage and commentary on freeway expansion, see the links here: Responsible Development / Responsive Communities.

Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 3 – March 2003