Republican lawmakers are making a move to end a state Department of Transportation program that funnels up to $15 million a year into murals, landscaping, stamped concrete and other aesthetic features to ensure community buy-in for road and bridge projects.
The GOP lawmakers are also targeting for elimination plans to install color-changing decorative lights on Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge. They say money for such projects should go toward roads.
“I don’t think it’s a time where we can afford all of the extras,” said Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).
Transportation officials counter that the program — called community-sensitive design — gets residents on board with major projects that become defining features in their communities. They say the program also helps attract more businesses and prevents litigation from citizens upset about how road projects are built.
Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt praised how the program was used in the ongoing reconstruction of Highway 41. Having aesthetically pleasing roads and bridges gives visitors a good first impression of his city and helps invite higher-quality development, he said.
“We do not want to look like a concrete jungle,” he said. “We do not want to take the cheap way out.”
The debate over the program comes as lawmakers prepare to take up the state budget. Steineke, the Assembly assistant majority leader, wants to amend the budget to ban spending on community-sensitive design, and he said he is making headway with this proposal.
Indeed, DOT officials faced skeptical questions about the program when they briefed the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on their spending plan last month. Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), the committee’s co-chairman, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said they saw room for cutbacks.
Nygren said in a statement his committee would seek ways to find savings for transportation and “scrutinize the need for ’embellishments.’ ”
A legislative task force earlier this year determined the state faces a $6.8 billion funding gap over the next decade for transportation infrastructure and recommended raising taxes and fees to cover it. Steineke said he couldn’t ask taxpayers to pay more for roads while the community-sensitive design program remained in place.
He acknowledged the program accounted for comparatively small amount of money — about 1.5% of highway construction — but said that money would be better spent on additional road projects.
“Fifteen and twenty million here, fifteen and twenty million there — pretty soon that adds up to real money,” Steineke said.
Transportation officials say the program improves relationships with local residents, helping ensure they welcome major infrastructure projects. Steineke found that approach problematic.
“When it comes down to it, using taxpayer money to grease the locals, I just think that’s wrongheaded,” Steineke said.
He said the department should provide local governments with options for such enhancements but require that they fund it.
But Schmitt, the Green Bay mayor, said people in his city have embraced what the program has provided in his community — bike and pedestrian paths, wrought-iron railings on bridges and design elements that incorporate the heritage of the Oneida tribe.
“People aren’t saying, ‘How much did it cost?’ They’re saying, ‘That is awesome-looking,’ ” Schmitt said. “We’re looking like a real metro area.”
The community-sensitive design program started in 2006 and is commonly used, particularly on the largest projects, such as the Marquette Interchange, said Steve Krieser, the executive assistant to Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Such programs are recommended by the Federal Highway Administration and used by most states.
Stamped concrete and other visible results of community-sensitive design are just one aspect of the program. What’s crucial about the program is that it involves neighborhoods from the outset, before a project is designed, Krieser said.
“It’s really about a process of helping a project fit into a community,” Krieser said. “It becomes more of a collaborative process.”
It can also make projects more efficient. Under the old system, projects sometimes had to be redesigned late in the process because of the public reaction to them. Krieser said the new approach can also prevent lawsuits over how projects are designed.
Gov. Scott Walker’s Commission on Fraud, Waste and Abuse last year found that the program was valuable but said spending for it should be curbed, recommending that it be limited to 1.5% of the budget for road construction.
Under that guideline, spending would be about $15 million a year. Krieser said he expected the department would spend less than that.
The Highway 41 project, which runs from Green Bay to Fond du Lac, is expected to cost $1.5 billion, with $21.4 million of that going to community-sensitive design work. That spending is higher than what the DOT would likely approve now, but department officials believe they need to honor the commitments they have already made, Krieser said.
Plans to spend about $700,000 on accent lights on the Hoan Bridge are not part of the community-sensitive design program, but they have become fodder for the debate. The Hoan is one of just nine bridges in the state that are eligible for aesthetic lights, Krieser said.
Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown) said he was frustrated by plans for the Hoan’s lights because he learned about them just days after being told of a delay on road work in his district, at the intersection of Highways 16 and F in Ixonia.
“It just seemed like a bit of misplaced priorities,” he said. “We just can’t afford (the Hoan lights) right now.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a statement the bridge provides wonderful views of Lake Michigan, downtown and the Summerfest grounds.
“Not funding enhancements at a time when we are all working — including the governor, (the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) and the state Department of Tourism — to promote Milwaukee’s water-related assets and the city’s value to the state’s tourism economy, is a step backwards and runs contrary to the goal of making the Hoan a signature and gateway bridge,” the mayor’s statement said.
The Hoan Bridge is slated to be rebuilt starting this fall at a cost of $278 million. The lights are estimated to cost $700,000, but could cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million.
The DOT’s Krieser said the special lighting for the Hoan Bridge was being proposed because of its “iconic nature” and because it is part of distinctive skyline that includes the Calatrava addition of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by MCT Information Services.