The recent closure of northbound US 45 at I-94 has created a bottleneck for drivers and a bottleneck of politicians pointing fingers of blame.
But as the old adage goes, when you point a finger at someone else, there are four fingers pointing back at you. That is appropriate in this case, since there is enough blame to go around for all of us.
Scott Walker came out early, blaming Tom Barrett for the fiasco. After naming the closure and rerouting of traffic “Barrett’s Bypass,” he pointed to a 2005 letter to state senators the mayor wrote opposing preliminary engineering funding of the Zoo Interchange.
In the letter, Barrett said the projected $38 million cost was not “preliminary,” but for the actual engineering. He said the Southeastern Wisconsin freeway plan was “baseless,” the county and city hadn’t endorsed the project and questions of widening the I-94 East-West corridor and relocation of cemeteries had not been answered, making the engineering premature. He added the Zoo Interchange would “stand long enough for us to resolve these issues.”
Barrett’s short-sightedness and lobbying against the preliminary engineering pushed back the possible start of reconstruction, which in hindsight has been proven more costly for repairs, temporary bridges for $22 million and the eventual project.
However, Walker isn’t completely blameless. He took a stance against road funding as a member of the state Assembly. During discussions of the 1995-’97 state budget, he supported cuts to the city of Milwaukee’s state road aid. “This proposal gets the job done without soaking Wisconsin’s overburdened taxpayers,” Walker said at the time of the budget discussions.
Even though the freeways and interchanges are not funded by city or county dollars, Walker’s record shows his mind set toward the funding of projects: no tax increases and hope for the best.
In addition to the battling candidates, the State Patrol and Sheriff’s Department share some blame for this fiasco. When the bridges were determined to be failing, weight restrictions were put in place, officers were stationed at the intersection and portable weight regulators were installed on the bridges to determine compliance.
On Friday, the DOT announced that since that date, over 1,600 trucks had violated the US 45 weight restriction of 30 tons each week. The question to ask is why the squads were not pulling trucks over?
Common sense tells us if the officers had conducted a few days of aggressive enforcement of the weight limits with tickets, the word would have gotten around to other drivers at truck stops and on the radio, and that may have stopped or at least slowed the bridge deterioration. The State Patrol did release figures on Sunday stating officers had pulled over and ticketed 57 violators over a two week period. That only comes to 1.8 percent of the overweight trucks traveling over the span. Definitely not enough effort.
Not to be missed in this blame game is Gov. Jim Doyle. First, he decided to forgo the tough work of compromise with municipal leaders and state representatives to move the Zoo Interchange project forward. Instead, he took the easy way out and chose to fund the I-94 North-South corridor project through Kenosha, Racine and southern Milwaukee counties. That project was cheaper and had the support of lawmakers in the area, making it an easy win.
The need to find an easy and cheaper project arises from Doyle’s second transportation problem, robbing Peter to pay Paul. In two budget cycles since Doyle took office, the state faced major shortfalls in revenue. In an effort to close the gaps, Doyle took $1.1 billion from the designated transportation fund, set up to provide money for all transportation projects and repairs in the state. Instead, he used the money to cover general fund shortages and to increase public school funding. He replaced it with an I.O.U that will need to be paid in the future, about half the project cost for the Zoo Interchange reconstruction.
Finally, look in your rearview mirror and blame yourself (and me too). While the politicians and a semi-truck load of bureaucrats share blame, they have taken their cues from us. We demand lower taxes without a reduction in services. We want cheaper prices at stores and lower costs in our businesses, so we demand just-in-time inventory practices, relying on bloated freeways filled with trucks overloaded with goods. We want it all without the cost. We live on credit and have taught our politicians that they can too.
Now the bill is here and awaiting payment. Just remember that as you’re stuck in the Zoo Interchange and remember we’re all to blame.