A significant amount of the debate this week in Madison centered around the expansion of the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority and an increase (if approved) in the Milwaukee County sales tax to fund the financially-strapped bus system in our area.
Milwaukee County voters passed an advisory referendum in 2008 calling for a hike in the sales tax to fund transit and other items in Milwaukee County.
As this was going on, local politicians in southeastern Wisconsin continued to work to find transit solutions that address the needs of commuters who live in the suburban cities south of downtown Milwaukee, addressing critical transportation improvements to a freeway system which has been ignored for decades.
County Supervisor Pat Jursik spoke in front of the Oak Creek Common Council on Tuesday, April 22, in favor of a Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission study to expand the Lake Parkway to Highway 100 (Ryan Road) in Oak Creek. The council voted 6-0 in support of that study.
The same evening, city officials in both Franklin and Oak Creek debated the construction (and funding) of a new Interstate 94 interchange at Drexel Avenue, also a vital link to job-creating economic development on the southern edges of Milwaukee County. Both common councils continue to work with the Department of Transportation to find a funding solution that reduces the cities local cost share.
To date the D.O.T. has insisted that at least 50 percent of the interchange be funded by local dollars, although the sticking point may be that the total estimated cost of the interchange has dropped by $2 million since it was first proposed. Oak Creek may hold a special Common Council meeting to discuss the interchange as soon as Monday, April 26. Franklin aldermen have asked Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor to continue working with Oak Creek and the DOT on the financing of the interchange.
These discussions took place because locally-elected officials have decided to take seriously the transit needs of residents who for the most part don’t take buses to work, but do pay a significant share of the taxes that pay for those buses.
Those same residents understand that even in a future which holds the promise of electric cars and clean-burning combustion engines, a well-planned freeway system, linking all areas of southeastern Wisconsin to its economic centers will do more to expand and improve our local economy than a bus system can ever hope to accomplish.
The widening and improvements taking place on I-94 are a critical and long-overdue component of a regional transportation system, but they fall short of providing improved freeway access to the southern cities in the Milwaukee area, especially those along the lakefront.
What’s the distinction between the freeway development discussion and bus/rail debate raging in Wisconsin right now? The latter has the blessing of state officials and departments who spend a significant amount of state revenue and television time expounding on the virtues of an expanded mass transit system while at the same time offering no leadership on the most-used and most efficient transportation system that most of us use every day – our cars.
Steve Scaffidi is an Oak Creek alderman.