Whose Roads? Not Yours!

A federal judge’s decision on a Wisconsin road project has shined a spotlight on the distorted ways people view “their” roads.

On May 22, the U.S. Eastern District Court ruled that WisDOT didn’t adequately explain traffic projections or account for updated demographic data when deciding to expand Highway 23 to four lanes between Fond du Lac and Plymouth.

It’s easy to overstate the case. Judge Lynn Adelman didn’t rule Wisconsin had hit “peak car,” as the Atlantic’s CityLab heavily implied, and he didn’t say a four-lane road could never be approved. He just determined that officials violated the National Environmental Policy Act process to an extent that “significantly affected informed decision-making and informed public participation” and sent the project back to them for further consideration. Strong Towns has an excellent discussion of the legal issues with Appellate Attorney Mahesha Subbaraman that is well worth listening to.

What is significant is the comments from people who drive the road. In addition to the usual complaints about liberal judges and environmentalists, several people said outsiders need to butt out, as this man did:

From Fond du Lac Reporter: http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/26/community-leaders-frustrated-hwy-delay/27990783/

From Fond du Lac Reporter: http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/26/community-leaders-frustrated-hwy-delay/27990783/

This wouldn’t be a problem if the project were a city street funded with local property taxes. But it’s a state trunk highway whose expansion is funded 27 percent through federal money and 73 percent through state taxes. Local drivers view it as “their” road even though the reality is they aren’t chipping in any more than taxpayers in Madison — and their share compared to out-of-staters is more of a difference in scale than kind.

Yet comments like this were common:

From Fond du Lac Reporter: http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/26/community-leaders-frustrated-hwy-delay/27990783/

From Fond du Lac Reporter: http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/26/community-leaders-frustrated-hwy-delay/27990783/

This is clearly not a local road, so I’m not arguing that local money should be the only funding source – or even a funding source. I also couldn’t say whether the expansion is justified. I’ve never driven the road.

Yet the reaction to the lawsuit highlights some tough questions we should be asking as we debate how to pay for our transportation system. What do we aim to accomplish by diverting federal money to state highways? Is that still the best decision? What about using state and regional money for local projects? If a municipality doesn’t have the money to pay for a purely local project, what’s the rationale for using outside money? This applies to transit projects every bit as much as road projects.

People are far more eager to object to outsiders criticizing projects on their turf than to start an honest discussion about why their pet project relies on outside funding:

From Fond du Lac Reporter: http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/26/community-leaders-frustrated-hwy-delay/27990783/

From Fond du Lac Reporter: http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/26/community-leaders-frustrated-hwy-delay/27990783/

We need to change that. We’ve got a funding crisis at the federal level and a funding crisis at the state level. It’s the perfect time to start this conversation. The good news is people are already asking these questions:

From Right Wisconsin: http://www.rightwisconsin.com/perspectives/Liberal-Judge-Side-With-Environmental-Group-To--305106661.html

From Right Wisconsin: http://www.rightwisconsin.com/perspectives/Liberal-Judge-Side-With-Environmental-Group-To–305106661.html

Groups like MoveMN and the American Society of Civil Engineers say our infrastructure is crumbling. If the situation is as dire as they say, we’re long overdue for a discussion that puts every option on the table and truly examines whether a funding structure created decades ago still meets today’s needs.


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8 Responses to Whose Roads? Not Yours!

  1. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman June 1, 2015 at 11:53 am #

    There’s a fine line between redistributing wealth because states like South Dakota can’t afford to pay for roads of nationwide importance like I-90 otherwise, and redistributing wealth just to be liberal, like state money to local streets.

    It’s at least worth thinking about what would happen if we limited federal money to roads of nationwide importance, say the interstates and maybe a few key non-interstates, state money to roads of statewide importance (and many state highways in Minnesota probably aren’t- MN 270 I’m looking at you), and local funding for local roads. Maybe the CSAH system can be considered of statewide importance, maybe not. We’d probably have to allow local jurisdictions to levy or share in the gasoline tax if state funds for county roads and state-aid streets dry up.

  2. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman June 1, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Also, sometimes you can justify expressways and freeways from other perspectives beyond raw traffic counts, like safety or having a cohesive system linking major population centers. WI 23 doesn’t meet the 10,000 AADT threshold, but it links Sheboygan, a city of 50,000 to a city of 40,000 (Fond du Lac0, and is the most logical way to get to Sheboygan unless you’re in the extreme eastern or southern portion of the state. I-90 in western MN and MN 60 that we’re building don’t meet the threshold either, but are important for system continuity and to provide safe, high speed roads for long distance travel beyond the immediate region.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten June 1, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

      Do more lanes = more safety? Widening shoulders, adding a median, improving sight-lines, and more don’t require more lanes. GRANTED – If more lanes were warranted efficiency would dictate that the projects should be combined.

      And YES I-90 should exist, I make this decision knowing that the federal government pays for freeways in Wyoming as well as Minneapolis, as well as New York. But should the federal government pay for WI-23 to be expanded when it is carrying the load now, and won’t see the increase needed even when expanded?

      Unless these areas are wholly unable to pay for the improvement and they can express a need, they should put some skin in the game and make a local contribution to replace the federal dollars and get the project rolling without federal oversight.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman June 1, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

        Medians are definitely safer, but we’re not really building two lane roads with medians. I suspect when you figure ROW, construction staging, and such the incremental cost isn’t much more and a road the justifies a median justifies more lanes. You would also need extensive passing lanes since the opposite lane is no longer available, further decreasing the cost differential. Say 2.5 lanes of pavement instead of 4.

        I’d be fine with reducing federal funding (with a corresponding decrease in the federal gasoline tax so it could be made up by states and local agencies do the degree they seem fit) to a very limited set of key roads. In Minnesota this would probably be High Priority Interregional Corridors and a couple of Median Priority ICs outstate and Principal Arterials in the metro. In Wisconsin, probably the Corridors 2030 Backbones (which notably excludes WI 23).

        Using state gasoline tax for local roads is also pretty entrenched. For starters I’d also dump about a thousand miles of the trunk highway system onto the counties without compensation (like Iowas did) and think hard about CSAH funding.

        • Nathanael June 22, 2015 at 1:12 am #

          Nope.

          More lanes == more speeding == less safety. When in doubt, use fewer lanes.

          It might be worth taking a look at some European intercity road designs. The Portuguese ones are *nothing* like ours.

          • Monte Castleman
            Monte Castleman June 22, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

            Care to share some statistics to back up that allegation?. Here’s mine, the FHWA did a study and found that converting a road from a two lane undivided highway to an four lane expressway reduced accidents 40-60%.
            http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/humanfac/pdfs/99206.pdf

            And I looked at Portugal on Google Earth. Looks like they have an awful lot of four lane highways.

            • Alex Cecchini
              Alex Cecchini June 22, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

              “However, the effects of conversion from two-lane to four-lane undivided roadway are clearly still open to debate. Our single-state estimate ranged from a 20-percent reduction to a slight increase in crash rate, depending on AADT”

              Or, the safety benefits you cite come almost entirely from dividing the roadway. One could conclude that the additional shoulder width, road straightening, or other improvements that came along with the 2- to 4- way (undivided) most likely played a bigger part in the marginal-to-20% safety gains rather than adding a lane in each direction.

              • Monte Castleman
                Monte Castleman June 22, 2015 at 4:23 pm #

                The original post was about expanding Highway 23 to a divided expressway, not an undivided “death road” (which I admit are not really safer than two-lane roads.