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:
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:
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:
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:
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.