Wisconsin's budget for 2021-2023 will define our state's transportation priorities for the next several years. It's important that the legislature and the governor acknowledge the changing transportation needs of their constituents, and the challenges that we all face together. By modernizing Wisconsin's transportation infrastructure and beginning the transition away from outdated mobility systems, we can step up to three of the most pressing threats to our state: climate change, air pollution, and systemic inequality.
We want the Budget NOT to enumerate the wasteful I-94 expansion, and to reject all other highway expansion projects.
The project, which would expand 3.5 miles of I-94 in Milwaukee County, is deeply unpopular, with more than 80% of comments through the Department of Transportation’s website opposing it. Wisconsinites are already able to see the real effects of wasting a BILLION taxpayer dollars on such a marginal increase in vehicle capacity. Studies have shown that highway expansions just attract more drivers. More drivers mean more cars, mean more exhaust clogging our air and adding carbon to our atmosphere.
Highway expansions in Wisconsin have a long history of harming low income and minority communities, and I-94 is no exception. Most of the project would border primarily African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian communities, where almost half of residents live below the poverty line. A highway expansion would only bring more noise, more pollution, more physical barriers, and more trouble to these communities, without providing any real benefits.
Imagine if that billion dollars could be spent on something useful. Imagine a billion dollars spent on public or alternative transportation systems that could help keep our air clean and reduce traffic congestion by keeping cars off the roads, and provide low-cost transportation to vulnerable communities at the same time.
Governor Evers' draft budget included this project, which is out of line with his commitments to climate and racial justice. We hope that the legislature will remove this harmful and costly project.
We want the Budget to increase spending on public transportation.
Public and alternative transportation is the future, at least if we want to get serious about fighting climate change and improving our air. We can’t ignore the benefits that public transportation systems can offer in terms of carbon abatement, decreased traffic, and social justice.
In 2018, the EPA estimates that 28% of CO2 emissions in the US came from the transportation sector, and nationally, it’s estimated that 80% of transportation emissions come from single-passenger vehicles. If you crunch the numbers, this means that more than a fifth of US carbon emissions come from people sitting alone in their cars. How much of that carbon is wasted on short trips, or sitting on the highway waiting for traffic to move, or getting one single person from point A to point B when a hundred more need to make the same trip? And how many low-income residents are left without options when they can’t afford a car, there are no buses or trains, and walking or biking in their area is virtually impossible to do safely?
Public transportation and mobility management are becoming increasingly important as solutions to the problems caused by our US car culture. Buses, trains, paratransit systems; all of them help people get around quickly and efficiently, while minimizing traffic, pollution, and inequality. Mobility managers are there to key into the specific transportation needs of their communities, and to match those needs to their available resources.
Governor Evers' budget did increase funding for public transportation, but only by a small amount. Our public transportation systems are dramatically underfunded and must see a larger increase.
We want the Budget to fund the Transportation Alternatives Program for walking and biking
Our state’s future belongs to the youth, and increasingly, younger Wisconsinites are concerned about the condition of the world they stand to inherit. More and more, young people, particularly recent college graduates, are expressing the desire to live in walkable, bikeable communities, both as a way to shrink their carbon footprint, and keep themselves healthier.
The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funds projects that create and improve cycling and walking infrastructure around the state, and make sure that people opting to get around without burning oil can do so safely and effectively. As younger people flock to urban centers like Milwaukee, Green Bay, or Madison, or expand outward into smaller, but no less vibrant communities like Viroqua, Spring Green, or Steven’s Point, there are incredible opportunities to enrich transportation options, while encouraging low-carbon lifestyles.
Moreover, carbon emissions are hardly the only form of pollution which the TAP can help to alleviate. Data from the World Health Organization shows that 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe unsafe levels of airborne pollutants, and air pollution is estimated to be a factor in 1 in 8 deaths worldwide. Walking a biking infrastructure is a relatively cheap and easy way to encourage cleaner, healthier movement and recreation, with a minimal footprint on the environment.
We want the Budget to fund necessary repairs to existing transportation infrastructure.
In many areas of Wisconsin, there wouldn’t even be a need for large new infrastructure investments, if only the government had the resources to repair what’s already in place. Right now, one in four roads in our state are rated “poor” or worse, which is a real drag on all transportation, but especially alternatives to driving. Walking or biking in your community can become nearly impossible when your route is a jagged moonscape of cracked pavement, potholes, mud, and railway ballast. With the American Society of Civil Engineers giving the US a D+ for its crumbling roads and bridges, the bar is set pretty low, and Wisconsin has a great opportunity to be a leader in improving its transportation infrastructure for the next several generations of travelers.
This is no time for business as usual. It's time to step up and face reality.
Our outdated and outmoded models of transportation in the US are proving to be unsustainable. The costs of burning fossil fuel are becoming clearer every day, but we are also now learning how our most vulnerable communities are bearing more than their fair share of those costs. By supporting a budget that moves us away from the transportation systems of the past and working to create newer, cleaner, more egalitarian mobility solutions, we can make travel in Wisconsin easier and healthier for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
By Andrew Knutson, Sierra Club Wisconsin Executive Committee Member