Public Policy Forum Blog

The decade of infrastructure?

The Governing Magazine web site recently published a provocative piece declaring the first decade of the 21st century the "decade of infrastructure."

While acknowledging the many infrastructure challenges still facing the United States, the piece argues the past decade was the one in which Americans came to grips with the importance of their roads, bridges and transit systems. It also cites increased use of transit nationally and creative approaches to highway and bridge reconstruction as evidence of an infrastructure epiphany.

Regardless of whether one agrees with this premise from a national perspective, it is interesting to think about it from a regional point of view. Was the past decade the one in which southeast Wisconsin came to grips with its longstanding transportation infrastructure problems?

The answer to that question is in the eye of the beholder, but certainly we can point to the following signs of success:
  • After years of controversy, the $810 million Marquette Interchange reconstruction project not only happened, but happened pretty darn well. The project came in on time and on budget, and the disruption associated with it was far less onerous than many had feared.
  • Milwaukee gained national attention from its decision to tear down the Park East Freeway and replace it with a ground level boulevard. While the projected economic development benefits have not come close to materializing so far, most would agree the plan has not produced more congestion and otherwise has worked well from a transportation perspective.
  • The Sixth Street viaduct project showed that roads and bridges, in addition to connecting commuters between two points, can serve as neighborhood gateways and points of architectural pride. The related Canal Street reconstruction, meanwhile, has been a significant factor in the rebirth of the Menomonee Valley.
  • After years of planning for the day when federal funds might be available for high speed rail, Wisconsin was rewarded with a recent $823 million federal pledge to a Milwaukee-Madison rail line. Undoubtedly, there will be plenty of future debate regarding the merits of this project, but it certainly is a sign that our state's political leaders can successfully compete for federal infrastructure dollars.

On other major transportation issues, success is more difficult to define. For example, significant progress was made on planning and building diverse support for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line, but lack of a local funding source has prevented the project from moving forward. Meanwhile, an act of Congress broke a 17-year logjam and divvied up $91 million in federal funds reserved for a Milwaukee transit project, allowing the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to independently pursue downtown streetcars and bus rapid transit, respectively. Still, lack of local funding sources looms as a major obstacle to those projects as well.

Which brings us to perhaps the region's biggest transportation infrastructure failure of the past decade: the inability of elected leaders to agree on a dedicated funding source for the Milwaukee County Transit System. As the Forum has documented in great detail, MCTS' funding problems escalated throughout the decade. Receipt of stimulus dollars to buy new buses has delayed a full-fledged crisis for now, but that crisis is expected to re-emerge within the next three years. While a new regional transit authority proposal from Governor Jim Doyle could solve the problem, its fate remains uncertain.

So, as we begin a new decade, those looking to enhance the region's mass transit infrastructure find themselves asking the same two questions they asked at the beginning of the previous decade and the decade before that: how will we pay for our basic bus service, and how can we even think about new transit options until we solve that fundamental problem first?