Thursday, September 23, 2010

The City of Milwaukee South 2nd Street Scandal


With taxpayers and businesses stretched by the worst recession since the Great Depression, the City of Milwaukee ignores engineers and turns to environmental sustainability advocates to turn a simple street resurfacing project into a boondoggle that spends more and delivers less. This is the story of millions being spent to slide a Milwaukee Street from an “A” grade for handling traffic to a “C” grade. In other words, you’re the one picking up the bill AND the one who will spend more time stuck in traffic thanks to Mayor Barrett and his Office of Environmental Sustainability [you pay for that, too.] But, before the street can be torn up and narrowed, it has to be patched and painted – huh – wait just a darn minute!

The City of Milwaukee South 2nd Street Scandal
How a Practical Road Project Became a
Costly Special Interest Boondoggle
[or the Real Cost of Mayor Barrett’s Office of Environmental Sustainability]

Several months ago, CRG began receiving calls after radio host Mark Belling noted concerns regarding waste and inefficiency by the Department of Public Works in maintaining a portion of South 2nd street near the Allen-Bradley Clock tower. Simply stated, questions were being asked as to why the City would spend precious tax dollars to patch pavement and repaint road markings (Figure 1) on a street that was scheduled to be torn up for resurfacing (Figure 2).

Figure 1: June 2010
Freshly Patched and Painted 2nd Street
Being Readied for Demolition
(click image to enlarge)
Figure 2: July 2010
Weeks Later All Those Tax Dollars
Completely Wasted!
(click image to enlarge)

However, after reviewing dozens of pages of open records requests it became clear there was more to this project than meets the eye, much more than simple waste associated with questionable maintenance scheduling. What surfaced was a rare insight into a City leadership run amok where special interest politics trumps practicality, where businesses and the jobs they produce are ignored, and where fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers is totally abdicated.

In 2001, the plans were laid for routine maintenance of S. 2nd Street to commence in 2003. A routine analysis by the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works (DPW) indicated that 95% of the road pavement structure was in “sound condition” and that a simple milling of the surface, repaving with 3.5 inches of asphalt and curb and gutter replacement would be sufficient to extend the useful life of the road an additional “20 to 30 years.”

(click image to enlarge)

An economic and logistical feasibility study revealed that the existence of an old train tracks with rails and ties in place buried along the center line of the road presented a “buildability issue” for any major reconstruction scenario from both a logistical, needs, and budgetary standpoint. This supported the recommendation that a resurfacing project was the preferred alternative.

(click image to enlarge)

In 2002, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation requested that the project be delayed to handle overflow from the Marquette Interchange reconstruction project. The City complied then restarted their engineering efforts in 2007 with construction scheduled for 2009. This is when the project begins to go “south” (no pun intended).

In 2007, the Milwaukee Department of City Development (DCD) received a letter from Alderman Witkowiak indicating that “neighborhood stakeholders” (i.e. narrow special interests) are interested in pursuing a “streetscaping” plan. This plan included added green space, bike paths, “quiet zones” to reduce train whistle noise, wider sidewalks, and “bump-outs” to shorten the distance for pedestrian crossings among others. However, to make these changes a Business Improvement District (BID) must be created and additional coordination with the railroads is needed pushing the project out to 2010. Ultimately, the BID formation is not successful and the streetscaping plan is dropped in 2008.

(click image to enlarge)

Interestingly, several emails from special interests soon arrived indicating a new concern for leaving the roadway configuration as is because of a perceived "lack of traffic" for the existing four lanes. The Milwaukee DPW reiterated the need for four traffic lanes (two in each direction) to accommodate peak hour traffic. Furthermore, DPW argued the four-lane configuration is necessary to conform to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's (SEWRPC) future traffic plan, that “S. 2nd Street acts as an alternate route in and out of the CBD during large events, construction, emergencies, etc.” and that a resurfacing-only proposal is the preferred alternative given “the street's physical condition and the City's monetary constraints . . . and the standard analytic procedures used to determine project scope and project prioritization.” The DPW continued its investigation of other items such as the bump-out finding they should “not be placed at signalized intersections since … signalized intersections have a protected pedestrian phase.” The DPW also found that bump-outs should “not be placed at intersections where there is a bus stop since this makes it difficult for the bus to re-enter the traffic flow.”

(click image to enlarge)

This is where the plot thickens! A meeting was called by the Mayor's Office of Environmental Sustainability in the fall of 2008. The so-called “neighborhood stakeholders” were once again rounded up to lobby DPW for their streetscaping plan although, curiously, several local businesses were neither invited nor informed of the meeting. By this time the special interests had upped the ante by seeking:
  • Decorative benches
  • Trash receptacles
  • Banners
  • Decorative and porous pavements
  • Trees
  • LED Lighting

(click image to enlarge)

Once again, the City DPW responded in great detail why many of these and earlier requests where unacceptable.

“Porous pavements are susceptible to plow damage, traffic loading, and it is very costly … Added water that would get through to the underlying soils next to the buildings and there was no real way to assess the risk and future liability that the City might incur by proceeding with this type of construction.”

LED lighting still had “many problems be worked out and DPW was not ready to commit to any LED usage at this time.”

“DPW indicated that 4 traffic lanes were necessary to manage peak hour traffic. That being the case, there simply was no room for bike lanes.”

Not to be deterred, the special interests increasingly petition the local Alderman, DCD, and DPW and yet another public meeting is held in the spring of 2009 to lobby the DPW with an ever-growing list of demands.

But, DPW attempts to hold its ground, firing back:

“the budget does not allow for a full reconstruction project, the WISDOT may not agree to participate monetarily in a alternative traffic configuration scenario, and under a full reconstruction scenario, the removal of the existing track zone will greatly impede access during construction forcing abutting property owners to find alternative means of access for long periods of time.”

“Introducing angle parking- DPW state firmly that the State-Municipal Agreement that it has with the WISDOT indicates that angle parking will be prohibited. This is true of all state/Federally funded street improvement projects in the City of Milwaukee.”

DPW considers "effectively" reducing a traffic lane and introducing a bike lane in each direction simply by using pavement marking and keeping the curbs in their existing location. However, “The WISDOT, in the past, has not allowed pavement markings that are not approved by the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices).”

”DPW completes its analysis of the alternative to bring the curbs in 4 feet on either side of the roadway while still keeping the resurface scenario for the bulk of the roadway. It indicates that it is NOT possible since placement of the new curb would be at an elevation higher than the property line match point creating back pitch into the buildings.”

But, slowly, inexorably, and to the dismay of many business owners, the tide is turning in favor of the anti-car and anti-business forces.

“WISDOT agrees to participate, monetarily, in a narrowing alternative in early June 2009.”

“On June 12, 2009, DPW meets to discuss how the project has evolved and where it needs to go from here. Given the concerns about the subgrade support (and the subsequent continuation of vibration problems) which would not be improved by a resurfacing project, the WISDOTs willingness to participate monetarily with a narrowing alternative, and the need to incorporate green elements into the design, the decision is made to do a full reconstruct.”

“Utility conflicts and construction staging/access in light of the track zone removal are duly noted. New cross section will include one lane of traffic, one bike lane, and one parking lane in each direction.”

“A significant amount of green space will be realized under this alternative with a 6-foot grass terrace (total=5,300 S.Y.) and trees incorporated on either side of the roadway.”

Porous sidewalk elements are discussed next. The close proximity of adjacent buildings, the age of the buildings (over 100 years), the highly variable and contaminated nature of the soil under the roadway, sidewalks, and adjacent to the buildings, and the introduction of new water into this environment, requires that the City also line the building fronts with rubber membrane from the surface to the foundation footing if porous sidewalks are built adjacent to a building front “... a very costly venture … $100,000 per block to incorporate bio-swales. Cost would be less for porous concrete adjacent to buildings, but still significant.” No alternative funding sources are identified to off-set these costs. Therefore, these items are dropped from consideration.

Well, at least the DPW prevailed on THIS last costly item! Nonetheless, in times that cry out for practicality and austerity, taxpayers are now on the hook for the costly delays, re-engineering, and unneeded, pork-barrel spending forced down the throats of average citizens by a handful of selfish special interests, all with the tacit aid and acceptance of a mayor who claims to be fiscally prudent and pro-jobs and business but whose actions - and inaction - proves otherwise.

And so it goes in the City of Milwaukee, citizens are getting two lanes for the price of six! You would think that after doing a similarly disastrous “streetscaping” project on Mitchell Street City of Milwaukee leadership would have learned its lesson – but then again, why - it’s not THEIR money!

Open Records Documents referenced in this post

DPW Announces Project (note text below logo - "Support for Business?" Not this time!)

Special Interests Letter

Business Owners Final Plea

Mayor Barrett Makes the Wrong Call

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