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.