By Jeremy Harrell
Daily Reporter Staff
Milwaukee’s City Hall blasted the county executive’s veto last week of a County Board resolution opposing the widening of key stretches of interstates 94 and 43 from six lanes to eight lanes. A top aide to Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist said County Executive Scott Walker’s move demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility and disrespect to the citizens he represents. “The people in his county have said, in all the ways it can be said in a democratic society, (that they) oppose the adding of lanes in the city where people live,” said James Rowen, Norquist’s policy director. “This would remove $144 million in tax base from Milwaukee County. Show me a county executive in America who would unilaterally do that.” The Milwaukee County Board failed by one vote to override County Executive Scott Walker’s veto of the resolution Thursday. In his veto message, Walker wrote that freeway traffic congestion threatens jobs in Milwaukee County. “Our county and our region must plan to handle the increase in traffic on the freeway system, now and in the future,” he wrote. As a member of the state Legislature, Walker backed a proposal – part of which ended up in the last budget bill – to mandate considering future traffic congestion in the plans to reconstruct freeways in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. Planning officials said the provision could force the state Department of Transportation to widen the highways during the building project. Before Walker vetoed the resolution, staff of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission recommended against widening those stretches in Milwaukee and some suburbs as part of an overall $6.25 billion freeway upgrade. The larger plan already has won support in six suburban counties, but it has drawn opposition in Milwaukee County. Supporters say expansion is needed to control traffic and stimulate development. Opponents say expansion would claim too many homes, increase air pollution and encourage sprawl.
Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, a Milwaukee group opposing the freeway expansion, said Walker, with his veto, “indicated his preference for local and statewide tax increases.” “Walker’s been whining about unfunded mandates, but he wants to hang a huge one on every taxpayer in the state,” said Robert Trimmier, CASH co-chairman. “This will make funding the Marquette Interchange look easy.” Rowen agreed with CASH that Walker’s support – as well as Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley’s — for freeway expansion runs counter to his claims of being a government spending hawk. Norquist and other opponents have maintained that there’s no funding in place for the SEWRPC plan, and building it would require “hidden” gas-tax and registration fee increases. “It’s so deeply hypocritical,” Rowen said. “These are allegedly fiscally conservative Republicans who talk about cutting taxes – except for highways.” State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, also sounded a familiar note last week in his cautioned praise for the scaled-back freeway plan. While SEWRPC’s recommendation was a good start, he said, the size of the southeast freeway project is still so large that it threatens to draw funds from projects elsewhere in the state. “I still have concerns that unless the project is brought down to a more reasonable and realistic level, projects in the rest of the state will be shortchanged,” Hansen said. “To sacrifice the safety of travelers and economic vitality in other parts of the state simply to shave a couple minutes of the commute time between Waukesha County and downtown Milwaukee makes no sense to me.”
The planning commission’s study committee meets April 2 to vote on how to rebuild the area’s aging freeways. WisDOT cannot obtain federal money to add lanes without the commission’s support.
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Racine County Executive Jean Jacobson, who sits on SEWRPC’s advisory committee, has been a consistent supporter of the initial plan to widen the full 127 miles of highway. She said the idea still makes sense because traffic is not going to ebb despite a no vote from the Milwaukee County Board. “The recommendation that was first given to us would bring this community ahead for the next 30 to 40 years,” Jacobson said. “I still believe that was the right way to go, but I can understand the rejection from the Milwaukee County Board.” Finley said he would lead a drive supporting the widening of those freeway stretches when the committee meets. Rowen, however, said a continued push from outside of Milwaukee County for expansions within the county would lead people to question why Milwaukee is part of SEWRPC in the first place. He noted that Milwaukee County is the largest contributor to the planning commission’s budget. “Dan Finley is behaving like the emperor of southeastern Wisconsin,” Rowen said. “He’s demanding that 216 homes and 31 businesses, most
of which are in Milwaukee County, should be torn down. That’s not a position he would support if (they) were in Brookfield, Elm Grove or New Berlin.” Daily Reporter writer Sean Ryan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.