Sunday, May 27, 2012

Concern Trolling the Bike Fed

Kevin Hardman is the Excecutive Director of the Bike Federation of Wisconsin.  I am not personally acquainted with Kevin but I appreciate his championing of all things cycling in my state, and his relentlessly sunny attitude in the face of the nasty headwinds Scott Walker has created here for those who ride bikes (and teach, like clean water, dislike corruption, want leaders who can't be bought and paid for....I could go on like this for a while). So yeah. When Kevin writes, I read.

He posted this yesterday:
Earlier this week I sent out an e-mail blast to our database notifying everyone of the news of [Wisconsin's] drop in the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly State Ranking. I received the following e-mail response from a member of our community:
Kevin, I appreciate your passion for bicycling and support through the Federation. However, the State of Wisconsin has only recently recovered from a near catastrophic financial disaster. It may be better to develope a database of private donors and seek to self fund as time goes on. There will be fewer funds available from the state. I too am enthusiastic about bicycling in Wisconsin and would contribute but I do not expect my neighbor to be as enthusiastic and I feel I have no claim on my neighbor’s money in support of my interest(s). Add my name to the database.
The message to Kevin was signed "Enthusiastic Wisconsin Biker." I'll call him EWB.

EWB is not enthusiastic.  I wonder if EWB is a biker.  Because any self-identified "enthusiastic" cyclist in Wisconsin understands that cycling infrastructure (along with roads, sidewalks, buses, and airports) is part of a comprehensive transit strategy and part of a greater economic equation.  EWB does not, apparently, get this.  Or he has an axe to grind on behalf of a certain governor on the brink of being recalled.  Whatever.

Kevin's response to EWB was, as expected, honest, evenhanded, and factual.  Charitable, too. Please read it.

EWB's starting position is that bicycles are an insignificant little special interest that is supposed to either pay for itself or not exist. I feel a lot less charitable than Kevin about that.
Kevin, I congratulate you for taking the high road with EWB. Perhaps his post was sincere. I got a pretty good whiff of Concern Trolling myself, but maybe that’s a byproduct of the political toxins that are part of life in Wisconsin these days. No matter. You are dead-on that cycling is more than a hobby or a diversion. Anyone who’s ever run an errand, commuted to work, or participated in one of our many cycling events has a sense of its economic value, measurable in dollars, fitness, and cleaner air. It’s nice that EWB feels no claim on his neighbor’s money for his “interest” in cycling. Suppose his neighbor doesn’t drive a car. Is said neighbor also then exempt from paying for the 40-50 percent of our highway projects that get funding from sources other than the gas tax and user fees?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We interrupt this program...

...if you consider one post every eight months a "program"....we interrupt it for my biggest pet peeve outside Scott Walker's transportation and land use policies:

I know you see it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Village, Part 2

Another personal story, if you can stand it - and this one's over 20 years old too, just like the one in Part 1.

So one icy winter night, there we were, four guys in a Pontiac, having just made the trip to Davenport, IA, to visit a buddy.  We were now on our way back to Wisconsin.  It was cold, we were crammed into this little subcompact, and it's a long-ass drive back to Milwaukee.  Coming up on Beloit, WI, about where Rockton Road intersects I-90, we suddenly found ourselves hanging out the windows, spouting off, "this state sucks! Illinois SUCKS!"  Oh, we meant it.

What would cause us to spontaneously start acting like a bunch of petulant fourteen year-olds? Why were the windows open on this cold night? Why at this spot? Easy. We were just leaving behind the last toll plaza before the state line.

After death and taxes, there are two certainties among Cheeseheads.
  1. We love the Packers.  
  2. We hate Illinois toll booths.
A little hindsight and little maturity have crept in since the days that we hurled both quarters and insults at coin baskets. Maybe Illinois was on to something with these tollways?  I just did a little reading up on their system's fiscal status for 2010-2011 (I am a totally fun date) and it was interesting that no mention of taxes appears anywhere in that PDF.  Capital expenditures, debt service, and operating expenses related to the tollways will be covered in 2011 by an estimated $680 million in revenue and bond issues.  Now, to be sure, Illinois highways don't work this way across the board.  But the very notion is alien on this side of the border.

In Wisconsin, the anti-mass-transit crowd is particularly noisy; the mere mention of the "high speed rail" or the letters "KRM" will send the high-strung ones into convulsions. Even the staid members of this group will still respond: "If the choo-choo can't pay for itself, we don't need it!"

Now try applying that same standard to the current highway budget proposed by Gov. Scott Walker. Highway expansion projects total more than $410 million in Walker's budget. Of that, $140 million is coming from - wait for it - the General Fund. And remember, he does this while we're "broke."

So if you were wondering if - or assuming that - highway costs in this state are fully supported by revenues from those that use them - they're not.  That is fantasy, even if just talking about the funding side of the equation.  We haven't even introduced the intangible costs.  But woe be unto anyone who floats the idea that Wisconsin adopt the Illinois tollway revenue model.  The shrieks would rival the ones heard had Caleb Hanie completed this pass for a touchdown instead of what actually happened.

Raiding the GF wasn't enough for Walker. To rub some salt in, he removes transit (buses, trains, bicycles) as a transportation category.  Because clearly these modes don't actually transport people and goods from place to place.  So starting next year, buses and any other non-automotive transit needs have to come from the General Fund, where they get to compete for table scraps with everything else in the budget that's being hacked to pieces.  "We're broke," says the Guv. Yet he found 410 million magic beans for road-builders.

I will give you 129,000 guesses as to how much in contributions Walker took directly into his gubernatorial campaign last year from highway building companies.

In the end, Walker is taking advantage of our unblinking, unquestioned allegiance to our cars. Barring a recall, he will get away with it, too. Whenever the DOT rolls out a project to take Interstate-XYZ from six lanes to eight or from eight to ten, it will be spoken of in the media, without fail, as an "upgrade." We don't question this wording. It's bigger. It holds more cars. So it must be better.

Only it's not better. It never was. There's no one person or group to blame; policies got this way out of both ignorance and the best of intentions.  But in current practice, they leave us in a place where the impoverished are guaranteed to stay poor and our crumbling infrastructure will keep crumbling.  How did this happen?

Looks like I'm gonna need a Part 3.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Village, Part 1

I make no effort to hide my contempt for the policies of Gov. Scott Walker. In Wisconsin, his budget will be remembered for a lot of things, among them, a huge point of contention that by his own admission had nothing to do with the budget. I will remember it for that above all else.  But there was also the Endless Facebook Pissing Match of 2011, which continues unabated.  I'm not in one of those right now, but wait five minutes...

In one of the calmer discussions with a couple friends who mostly disagree with me, I made a prediction about Walker's transportation policy and was asked to defend what I said.

Big topic all by itself. I said I'd come back to it, so here it is. I'll start with this Amusing Anecdote®, because where we live as teenagers is what informs our first opinions about how we get from place to place.

One day just over 20 years ago, a friend showed me the Wauwatosa Village area. Those familiar with metro Milwaukee will know this area as the confluence of Harwood Avenue, State Street, and the Menomonee River. See above.

This would not be at all remarkable except that, despite being born and raised in this part of Wisconsin, until that day I had no idea this place existed.

For my first 18 or so years, this was 'Tosa:

So was this:

And this:

All of which was just fine and dandy as far as I was concerned. Cars and highways were as normal as the popular kids having keggers on Friday night. Not that I'd had that experience, but whatever. I knew little else of lifestyles outside my subdivision on the semi-rural fringe of New Berlin, some 30-odd minutes from the center of the state’s largest city.

I reacted stupidly to learning of the existence of The Village.

"Wow!" I’m pretty sure I exclaimed, wide eyes peering out from under some very bad hair, "Is this, like...a tourist place?" I am not making this up.

My friend Kathy, having grown up only a couple miles from this spot, undoubtedly rolled her eyes at the person she often referred to as "Farm Boy" and quietly informed him – me – that, nice as it was (and remains), this was not, for example, Galena, IL, or some quaint town in Door County. No, it had always been here, and though not touristy, it had its charms. That part, at least, was clear to me even then. But I could not have told you why.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious why. The Village is a throwback, recalling a time when most towns were built around people. We'll come back to that a lot, but for now, it's enough to say this place is "human-scaled." It is completely functional for pedestrians. Residents and visitors can - in no particular order - purchase ice cream, aspirin, and groceries, do their banking, go to church, dine out, and get crocked if they want to, all without having to start a car.

But at the time, I didn't understand any of this. From the shiny happy day I acquired my temps, the first question I'd ask, upon going someplace I hadn’t been before, was almost invariably, "where do I park?" (You do this too. Admit it.) I’d chosen to go to an urban university, but during freshman and sophomore year, I distinctly remember thinking – more than a couple times – how nice it would be if Marquette would pack up and move to a nice suburban location with big parking lots and a freeway interchange nearby. You know, so I could have a place to put my car AND not have to worry about the terrifying kinds of people who lurked in the downtown shadows, ready to violate my car as soon as nobody was looking.

That's how it is. The automobile is sacrosanct and highways are an entitlement. Most of us take this as an article of faith before we can reach a gas pedal. Before The Village - and even for years after; let's be honest here - I couldn’t think of a time when anyone I knew didn’t want the nicest ride he or she could afford. Or pretend to afford. So if the car is priority, you can guess what follows.  The next priority will be nice roads to drive it on and big, convenient spaces or structures to stash it, day and night.

In the Facebook argument, I said something uncharitable about how freeways rate at appropriation time, and I got the expected response of freeways=good, without elaboration. But my good friend also asked me where my opinion came from, as he himself appears to have given the subject a passing thought over the years.  So OB, I hope you didn't doze off while reading, because, well, you asked....and Part 2 is on the way.