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Bill’s transit provision irks local planners

By Paul Snyder

A bill in the Wisconsin Legislature has the broad purpose of slowing global warming, but regional planners are fighting the provision they fear will eventually give the state control over local development.

Eileen Bruskewitz, a member of the Madison Metropolitan Planning Organization, said MPOs should not have to take state orders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of their regional planning efforts.

MPOs are made up of local elected officials who discuss and help direct regional transportation planning. Wisconsin has 14 MPOs.

“We’re already looking at ways to increase the efficiency of cars and keep traffic moving at a good pace,” Bruskewitz said of the Madison MPO. “There’s only so much we can do.”

Lawmakers want more. As part of the state bill based on recommendations by the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation would be required to work with the Department of Natural Resources to set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in future state transportation plans.

WisDOT would then be required to work with the 14 MPOs throughout Wisconsin in extending those goals to local transportation plans.

State Sens. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, and Mark Miller, D-Monona, are the bill’s primary sponsors. The bill received its first informational hearing Wednesday. Neither sponsor returned calls seeking comments before deadline.

But Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and co-chairman of the global warming task force’s transportation committee, said the bill commits WisDOT and MPOs to better mass transit planning and a stronger framework for future development.

“When developers go before an MPO,” he said, “the MPO gets all the information about a project and then basically decides how best to link that project to current development.”

The result, he said, is sprawl. Developers, Hiniker said, should be directed to target new projects near existing buildings, major roads or transit hubs. Instead, MPOs often simply consider what roadwork is needed to better connect highly developed areas to the undeveloped area targeted for a new project.

For example, Hiniker said Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. had planned to build a cinema and mixed-use development on Madison’s far east side, away from existing development. As it turned out, Marcus last month opted to build the project in Sun Prairie in a highly concentrated development area.

“It’s sticking with what was already intended for that part of the city,” he said.

But Carole Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison Inc., said the project’s move to Sun Prairie just encourages Madison residents to drive farther to the theater.

“These ideas about trying to steer development are all done with good intentions,” she said. “But you get a bunch of bureaucrats saying, ‘Well, we like this better because it will do this and this,’ but the reality of it can be a lot different.”

Schaeffer cited Madison’s East Washington Avenue corridor as an area identified by the city as prime for redevelopment and with plenty of opportunities for contiguous growth.

“But nothing’s happening there,” she said. “There’s no market for it right now.”

Developers, Schaeffer said, pick locations because they do advance planning and determine the best locations to generate business.

“When you try to force the issue or force where development goes, you end up with a lot of inactivity,” she said. “A building sitting empty is a worthless building.”

Hiniker said he expects some local push back on the bill, but it should not weaken the goals the task force put forth.

“This is planning and looking at options for future mobility,” he said. “We need to get serious about addressing our infrastructure problems. We’re not doing anything or telling anyone not to drive. You just have to be able to look at planning in terms of what it does for the region.”

But if the state tries to prescribe what and where to build, Schaeffer said, it will find itself at a dead end.

“In the end,” she said, “you’re just tying your own hands for the future.”

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2 comments

  1. “We’re already looking at ways to increase the efficiency of cars and keep traffic moving at a good pace,” Bruskewitz said of the Madison MPO. “There’s only so much we can do.”

    I submit that Ms. Bruskewitz is totally missing one of transit’s main advantages: transit’s propensity of removing vehicles from the roadways, thereby lightening the roadways’ loads and, by alliteration (and using Ms. Bruskewitz’ own words), increasing the efficiency of cars and keeping traffic moving at a good pace.

    Of course, transit itself has to be off the roadways and on private rights-of-way for it to work efficiently, and transit has to be something people like to use.

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