Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wisconsin ruling on highways and transit planning could have big impacts

A U. S. district court in Wisconsin has (at least temporarily) held up an Interstate highway project in Milwaukee (the “Zoo Interchange” reconstruction) because Wisconsin DOT failed to consider the impacts of a building program that is widening freeways in the metro area while transit service is being curtailed (text of decision here).
On paper, the Milwaukee area has a plan for both doubling transit service and widening freeways.  In practice, the Walker administration is going gung-ho on the highway side while effectively letting existing transit service wither away – let alone building a new system.  WisDOT’s EIS referenced the regional plan and assumed a transit build.  The court wasn’t buying this, calling the transit numbers a “pipe dream” given what’s actually happening on the ground.
Given the highway and transit imbalance, the court concluded that the plaintiffs (a coalition of inner city groups concerned about limited reverse commute opportunities, etc.)  “are likely to succeed on their claim that the EIS is deficient because it does not address the potential growth-inducing cumulative effect of highway expansion on the Southeastern Wisconsin region.”  The ruling also said that the EIS was likely to be deficient for the same reason in its treatment of social and economic and air quality impacts.
The court process is still early, but the court was pretty clear on some of its conclusions and also stated clearly that WisDOT should expect the same issues to arise on related projects, including the proposed 3-mile widening of I-94 between the Zoo Interchange and downtown Milwaukee.
If this ruling holds, it could have implications for other projects in other states.
The moral of the story (in my opinion): highway widenings are only justifiable as part of an overall transportation plan that integrates roads, transit, land use, other infrastructure, and environmental assets in a sustainable fashion.  And that plan needs to be a real plan with real implementation.
We can hope that this ruling will give Wisconsin the opportunity and incentive to do some real 21st century transportation planning.

“Blueprint Planning” anyone?

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