By Jeremy Harrell
Daily Reporter Staff Oct. 8, 2002
Planning officials on Tuesday defended survey results showing significant support for a $6.2 billion plan to overhaul the freeways in southeast Wisconsin. “If you’re opposed to the freeway plan, obviously you’re going to pick away at it,” said William R. Drew, a Milwaukee lawyer and chairman of the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s advisory committee that’s shepherding the freeway study. “But you’re looking at overwhelming support. I think people are saying what they really want.” On Monday, SEWRPC officials and Gov. Scott McCallum released results from a summer survey that asked people in the seven-county region around Milwaukee whether they agree with particular aspects of a plan to reconstruct the freeway system. More than three-quarters of those sampled support spending $5.5 billion to rebuild the freeways to modern design standards, according to the survey results. And nearly 75 percent of the respondents in all seven counties supported a $6.2 billion plan that would add lanes to 127 miles of freeway, primarily in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. Support for that most expensive plan ran above 75 percent in Milwaukee County, where some local officials have said lane widening would drain the city of economic vitality. Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist dismissed the findings of the survey, however, because the poll didn’t attach dollar values to the questions. For instance, the survey asked people if they thought lanes should be added “to accommodate travel and economic expansion” and to deal with congestion and safety, but it never said how much adding lanes would cost. Norquist pointed out that 222 of the 310 people who submitted comments to SEWRPC during the summer opposed the entire freeway plan, with 46 saying they approved of adding lanes. The mayor charged SEWRPC with commissioning “a phony survey with loaded questions.” “If they’d asked people, ‘Do you want your taxes raised to pay for freeway expansion?’ they would have gotten the same answer they got at public hearings — No,” Norquist said, referring to what he considers an inevitable increase in the fuel tax needed to pay for the freeway project.
Ken Yunker, SEWRPC’s assistant director, said the survey’s purpose was to evaluate public opinion on congestion and traffic concerns. The survey didn’t include dollar amounts because, in part, SEWRPC wanted to keep the questions short and uncomplicated so people wouldn’t throw out the surveys before completing them, he said. Yunker also said the difference between the $5.5 billion plan and the $6.2 billion plan is “modest,” and he said he doubted the answers would have been any different if the questions included cost estimates. “Do you think it would have changed people’s opinion to know that adding lanes would add 10 percent in cost?” Yunker said, answering his question in the negative. “Support is strong across the region. When you don’t like the results of a survey, you say it’s biased.” On the same day SEWRPC released the survey results, a citizens group composed of neighborhood associations in the city of Milwaukee banded together. Calling themselves Citizens Allied for Sane Highways – or CASH – the group echoed many of Norquist’s complaints with the survey and the freeway plan. Robert Trimmier, CASH’s co-chairman, said SEWRPC and the state Department of Transportation, which commissioned the survey, designed the questionnaire to elicit favorable responses to the $6.2 billion plan. The survey also neglected to mention how much private property WisDOT would have to obtain to carry out the freeway project. “SEWRPC should be embarrassed,” Trimmier said in a press report. “The public should be part of the planning process, not something to be manipulated after the plans are made.”
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James Rowen, Norquist’s policy director, said the survey also came with what he described as a “very prejudicial cover letter” that spelled out a “doomsday scenario” if the state didn’t take on traffic congestion in the region. “After you’ve been told the sky is falling, you’re steered to answers because of the cover letter,” he said. The city’s public works director, who sits on the SEWRPC advisory committee, also told Norquist that SEWRPC never discussed commissioning a survey until after the public hearings turned up little support for the freeway plan, Rowen said. “It was clear at the hearings that SEWRPC wasn’t unearthing any support for the plan,” he said. “We don’t do government by survey. To say you can substitute a survey for hearings violates the way government works.” Both Yunker and Drew rejected Rowen’s assertion, saying SEWRPC officials had long planned to poll the public on the freeway plan. Drew said reasonable people could disagree about the survey results, but he said he believes the process was sound. “I don’t think the survey results are different because we didn’t include dollar figures,” he said. “If you read the questions, the fact that a dollar figure isn’t there doesn’t skew it. Those questions had to be asked.” Jeremy Harrell can be reached at 608-260-8570 or by email.