WisPolitics.com / WisBusiness.com: FORUM TACKLES TRANSPORTATION NEEDS, FUND OPTIONS
2/8/2010

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WisPolitics.com/WisBusiness.com: The Future of SE Wisconsin Transportation and Its Busiest Interchange
February 4, 2010 - Medical College of Wisconsin - Alumni Center

Keynote: Former Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Tom Carlsen

Panelists:

  • Kenneth Yunker, executive director, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, and temporary staff to the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority
  • Craig Thompson, executive director, Transportation Development Assoc. of Wisconsin
  • Gretchen Schuldt, co-chair of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, a coalition opposing freeway expansion in Milwaukee
  • Dan Devine, West Allis mayor and former Milwaukee Co. board member
  • Ryan Luck, WisDOT Project Construction Chief for Emergency Bridge Replacement, Zoo Interchange project

FORUM TACKLES TRANSPORTATION NEEDS, FUND OPTIONS

The Zoo Interchange, Wisconsin's busiest, needs to be rebuilt sooner rather than later while the state needs to boost the gas tax in the short term and move to automatic tolling in the long term to pay for growing costs.

Those were two themes emerging from a Feb. 4 forum on the future of southeastern Wisconsin transportation and the Zoo interchange. The event, before a crowd of about 100 people at the Medical College of Wisconsin, was sponsored by the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin and organized by UW-Milwaukee, MMAC and WisPolitics.com/WisBusiness.com.

Former state Transportation Secretary Tom Carlsen and Gretchen Schuldt, co-chair of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, agreed that motorists would someday be paying for roads through some form of "open road" tolling.

Carlsen, DOT Secretary under former Gov. Scott McCallum, said while the gas tax mechanism for funding transportation is "antiquated," it needs to go up. "I think we need to raise the gas tax," he said in his keynote address, arguing it would be better than excessive transportation borrowing.

But, he added, "automatic tolling should come some day ... not soon enough."

Added Schuldt in a later panel discussion: "Tolls are inevitable." But she noted concern about "Big Brother" tracking car mileage.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, also endorsed a gas tax increase to help fund projects like the expected massive Zoo reconstruction project.

"We need more money, and transportation is a return on investment for our economy," Thompson said, who also pushed a constitutional amendment to prevent diversions from the state Transportation Fund.

The panel also discussed sales tax boosts to pay for public transit and other needs, but some audience members endorsed user fees instead.

The discussion comes as southeastern Wisconsin is in the midst of a large scale and expensive transportation infrastructure upgrade.

The Marquette Interchange was finished on time and under budget, but now there's hundreds of millions being poured into the I-94 expansion between Milwaukee and the Illinois line, as well as emergency bridge replacement on the Zoo. On top of that is the federal-state high-speed rail and the KRM rail commuter line projects

“All (projects) need to get done. We can’t just pick and choose and say transit is necessary but then pick and choose. We can’t set a priority. All needs to get done, and that’s the challenge ahead,” said Kenneth Yunker, executive director Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. The TDA's Thompson agreed.

But Schuldt said those were rosy outlooks, adding politics, funding shortages and taxpayer fatigue make prioritizing a necessity. She suggested the choices sometimes come down to better schools or better roads.

“We need to synchronize efforts and get all on the same page with cost factors to eliminate confusion,” added West Allis Mayor Dan Devine.

But the need for repairs on the Zoo interchange won general backing. Carlsen called the Zoo the "heartbeat of Wisconsin's economy." Said Carlsen, "We don't want it to go into cardiac arrest."

"There's no time to lose on this," said state Sen. Jim Sullivan of West Allis, who welcomed the group.

"The Medical College of Wisconsin’s No. 1 priority is transportation. We were disappointed with what happened with the budget last year. It is critical to get patients, faculty and students on our campus, especially when we serve over 1 million patients on our campus each year,” said Kathryn Kuhn, associate vice president of government affairs at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “We don’t want to wait until 2016; we need it now and need it done right.”

But it won't be easy. “It has been a perfect storm of design deficiencies in the last 50 to 60 years,” said Yunker.

According to Ryan Luck, project construction chief for emergency bridge replacement for WisDOT, the temporary repairs on the Zoo Interchange are contracted for $15.3 million. Construction has occurred primarily during the evening hours. However, ramps have been shut down on weekends.

According to Luck, there are two more closures projected for May and demolition on June 14. WisDOT is evaluating a long-term solution for the Zoo Interchange. Some have speculated the long-term plan could cost $2.3 billion, which would make it the most expensive project in state history.

“When the taxpayer invests money, they want it used wisely, and we need the confidence of the public to invest in this infrastructure,” Luck said later on the general topic of long-term infrastructure costs.

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