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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -2.0° F  Fair
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Madison is paving itself into oblivion
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Are there roads that need to be expanded? Not anymore.
Credit:Michael Barrett

Over the last 11 years, the city of Madison has increased pavement spending at 11 times the rate of population growth plus inflation. So why have both reconstructions and highway expansions increased at far above the inflation and population growth rate? That depends on whom you ask.

Ask a progressive alder from an isthmus neighborhood why he or she votes for all the paving (and they all do), and the answer ranges from roads-as-public-works-savior to roads-as-bargaining-chip-for-park-benches. Never mind the illegality of such log rolling, or the good old fashioned sexism favoring "breadwinner"/manly road building over "women's work"/social services.

Ask a fiscally conservative alder, and you'll find out that they are actually closet socialists -- albeit a socialism for cars, not people.

The mushy-middle alders are easily cowed by the city engineers into believing that unless every street is in freshly steamrolled condition, they will be thrown out of office.

And so we pave. A lot.

On the graph below, that fast-growing top line portrays the growth in paving costs in the capital budget's "major streets" line item. It includes existing, older neighborhood street reconstruction as well as suburban highway expansion. This line item is street paving only; it does not include utility installations, upgrades, replacement and maintenance that often occur concurrently with road reconstructions as well as new roadways.

Do we need to reconstruct existing roads? Sure. But only after having done everything to make them last as long as possible. And once reconstruction becomes inevitable, each road should be redesigned to accommodate all modes. The current practice of replicating the car-only mistakes of yesteryear must end.

A glaring example of the waste in the current budget: the neighborhood-scaled Cottage Grove Road bridge over I-90 is being torn out -- after only 6 years! -- and replaced with a new and expanded, three-quarter-million dollar, four-lane highway bridge.

Even more egregious is the infamous S & M intersection on the west side of Madison. Though these are county highways, the city of Madison is surrendering tens of millions to speedy Republican exurbanites for whom fast enough is never enough.

Our city pays the price going and coming; in dollars and in quality of life. And it doesn't stop there: Our Common Council has mounted millions of dollars to expand County Highway M and Junction Road to pack yet more traffic into this gargantuan intersection. And to think, most of this expense could have been prevented with proper planning.

Are there roads that need to be expanded? Not anymore. We have overbuilt too many already.

Consider:

  • The decline in vehicle miles traveled nationwide, even before the Great Recession.
  • The rise in walking for transportation.
  • Madison is the nation's top bicycle commuter town.
  • Bicycling is up by more than 400% over 20 years in Madison.
  • Transit use in Madison is up five times the rate of population growth over 10 years.
  • Car ownership is on the decline nationwide (even before the Great Recession).
  • In 1978, three-quarters of 17-year-olds had their drivers licenses; by 2008, only 49% did.
  • Madison's close-knit, walkable urban neighborhoods have held and even increased in value while the car-oriented suburbs falter, fail and get foreclosed upon.

The times, they've done changed. We need to put our roads on a diet.

We have the traffic engineering and urban planning expertise right here in Madison to make our existing transportation system much more efficient, at much lower cost. No traffic jams required. Everything from roundabouts (in conjunction with narrower roads), to reversible commuter lanes (ditto), to center turn lanes (ditto) can keep things moving smoothly and more safely for those who continue to drive. These same "road diet" strategies can calm traffic and create streetscapes that are more urban, urbane and green, thus conducive to walking, bicycling and hopping the bus.

Unfortunately, the expertise does not reside on city staff.

Despite low-cost options available in the current professional "best practices" of planning and engineering, the paving budgets requested by city staff continue to dedicate upwards of 20% of the total toward capacity expansion (more lanes), year after year. This is creating a spiraling cycle of overbuilt roads necessitating ever greater resources to maintain and eventually reconstruct -- i.e., the other 80% of the paving budget. Our overbuilt highways of the '60s, '70s and '80s are now coming due for major reconstruction. Instead of correcting those mistakes by scaling them down, we are repeating the sins of our fathers.

Overbuilt roads impose significant costs on other departments. For example, lightly traveled neighborhood streets in recent subdivisions are over 50% wider than those typical in older neighborhoods, necessitating 50% more plowing, 50% more salting, 50% more sweeping, 50% more pothole repair, and on and on. Car-oriented development also hurts transit (given extremely stretched-out distances), significantly driving up costs on a per-passenger basis.

But repeating the sins of our fathers is not manifest destiny -- if we so choose.

Budget deliberations have commenced. Give your alder an earful about bloated paving budgets. Yes, even the "progressive" ones.

Because if they continue to be willfully ignorant of these costs, the future of our city's fiscal health is clear, as shown by the most recent "Madison Measures."

[screen shot from the city document; text box added by this author]

As the hockey stick of debt payments steepens, departments' operational budgets -- Parks, Madison Metro, Community Services, etc. -- will be crushed. Even if Gov. Scott Walker had never come to power, we were on the road to self-inflicted budget disaster thanks to bloated paving budgets, much as I predicted in 2008.

Mayor Soglin has admirably stabilized some aspects of the budget in important areas such as transit. Unfortunately, spending on paving continues in the same range that brought us to these very dangerous levels of debt. And 2013's paving budget is projected to be more wasteful than ever.


Michael D. Barrett, an energy efficiency and community plan analyst with UrbanThoreau LLC, blogs at urbanthoreau.com/blog.

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