Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zoo Interchange Column: Paying for the Sins of the Past

There's a lot of chatter about the Zoo Interchange and how we got where we are today. Here's my latest column:


In February of 2005, I held a press conference at the Medical College of Wisconsin with the college’s CEO and former Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley. The event highlighted the need for the state to move ahead with reconstructing the Zoo Interchange. The Zoo, with over 300,000 vehicles traveling through it each day, was then, and still is now, the busiest interchange in state.

Despite the facts, and ignoring that The Zoo is located in the middle of the economic engine of Southeastern Wisconsin, Governor Doyle announced the I-94 North South (NS) Corridor would be the next section of the freeway system to be reconstructed after completion of the Marquette Interchange. In a letter attempting to satisfy proponents of the Zoo project, the head of the Department of Transportation said “as the NS Corridor progresses, the state will in due time turn its attention to the full reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange.”

Since then, the Governor has turned his back on the Zoo Interchange project. Within six months of his commitment, Governor Jim Doyle vetoed almost all of the Legislature’s $38 million appropriation to the interchange in the 2005-2007 State Budget. That veto, and the Governor’s subsequent refusal to fund the Zoo with any sense of urgency, is responsible for our current crisis.

So why did the Governor choose to place the NS Corridor in front of the Zoo? Why not focus our limited resources on the area of greatest need, the area that would most benefit the region and the entire state?

The answer is indicative of the leadership style of Jim Doyle; he took the easy way out. He was under pressure from political forces in Milwaukee opposing a critical portion of the Zoo project, the widening of I-94 from Miller Park to the Zoo. A major source of that political pressure was Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Just weeks prior to the Governor’s budget veto, Mayor Barrett wrote a letter to legislative leaders in opposition to the Zoo’s $38 million budget line item. Demonstrating his own lack of judgment, much like Governor Doyle’s, Mayor Barrett’s letter argued against the funding stating, “…the Zoo Interchange will stand long enough for us to resolve these issues.”

Now flash forward to last week. The Department of Transportation announced the need for an emergency replacement of three bridges within the Zoo Interchange with total estimated cost reaching $22 million.

If Doyle and Barrett would have made the right call and the Zoo project had moved forward on its original timeline, reconstruction would have been right around the corner in 2012, not pushed off until 2016 and beyond. Would we have known about these structural deficiencies earlier? Would we would have been able to shift the project forward and fully incorporate the emergency repairs into the final product? We’ll never know for sure. What we do know, however, is we’re now faced with an incredibly expense bill, for a temporary fix, to a massive problem.

Our leaders should have made the right decision in 2005 instead they made the easy one. A little backbone or even the hint of leadership and judgment from Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett would have gone a long way. Undoubtedly, we would be better positioned to address this critical situation.

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