Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When is a plan not a plan?

According to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel PolitiFact article, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele's decision to use $36.6 million in federal funds to buy new buses "kept" a campaign promise to "develop a plan" to finally spend the money, which was allocated to the region 20 years ago.

While that assessment technically is correct, and while the county's fiscal condition provides ample justification for the decision, it is difficult to avoid reflecting on what this outcome says about transportation decision-making in our region.

The funds are part of a $289 million congressional appropriation from 1991, which originally prompted studies of light rail and/or special bus and carpool lanes in the East-West Corridor between Milwaukee and Waukesha. The thinking, at the time, was that express or rapid transit options in the corridor might greatly benefit commuters, and that this was a unique opportunity to pursue such options with substantial federal assistance.

Instead, after years of political disagreement, all but $91 million was allocated to highway and bridge projects (and $48 million was retrieved by the feds). Ultimately, the $91 million was split 60/40 between the city and county, with the city's share earmarked for a downtown streetcar line and the county's share now being used to buy buses.

Thus, it seems the "plan" essentially is to stick with what we have. While other metropolitan areas seek modern express and rapid transit solutions (either rail or bus) to buttress service for existing riders and provide viable alternatives to driving, commuters in and out of Milwaukee will get virtually nothing new from our $289 million gift for modernized mass transit. (If constructed, the 2.1-mile downtown streetcar line could benefit the downtown economy and serve downtown visitors, but it is not designed to serve daily commuters in a meaningful way.)

In light of our moderate traffic congestion, sticking with what we have may prove to be the correct decision. But given the extremely lengthy timeline for implementing major transportation improvements - and the one-time opportunity to use federal dollars to help implement them here - wouldn't it feel better to know that the county's ultimate use of the funds to replace buses was predicated on years of fact-based and measured deliberation, as opposed to our 20-year inability to agree on long-term improvements?

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