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Wisconsin's need for speed PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 28 August 2013 14:33

The state should get with it and raise the speed limit on interstate-type roads; meanwhile, in downtown Port, slower-moving traffic is a sign of progress

Wisconsin is the only state between Pennsylvania and Oregon that doesn’t have a speed limit higher than 65 mph on its interstate highways. A bill to raise the limit to 70 has been introduced in the Assembly, but indications so far are that a number of legislators are clogging the passing lane, unwilling to get out of the way of progress.

     Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has come out in favor of the change. Now Gov. Scott Walker and Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb should join him and tap their horns and flash their headlights to get the lawmakers moving.

    This should be an easy call for the Legislature. Interstate highways and similar multi-lane, limited access roads through non-urban areas are designed to move traffic efficiently and swiftly. As the experience of other states attests, they can safely handle speeds faster than 65.

    In fact, as everyone who has driven on Wisconsin’s interstates in the last five years should know, the roads are already doing that. The 65 limit is rarely enforced on I-roads. Faster speeds are the norm. The speed limit needs to catch up with reality.

    The musty maxim “speed kills” is not relevant to a debate about raising the speed limit on made-to-be-fast highways by a mere 5 mph. It is probably safe to say that drivers who slavishly observe the 65 mph limit while camping in the passing lane are more of a menace than faster drivers, given the frustration and consequent right-side passing their clueless behavior engenders.

    Some roads are designed for speed; others are designed to slow traffic down. One of the latter is Port Washington’s Franklin Street, which has proven to be a remarkable success at calming downtown traffic to make the shopping district friendlier to pedestrians.

    This was accomplished by narrowing the street, improving crosswalk design and emphasized the requirement that motor vehicles yield to pedestrians.

    The result is that traffic moves at a sedate pace when the street and sidewalks are full of farmers market customers, shoppers and visitors. Drivers and pedestrians have a nice, friendly relationship. That was the goal in the rebuilding of Franklin Street, a goal the city had the luxury of pursuing because it has an alternative for drivers who want to get through town a little faster—the Wisconsin Street bypass.

    It is a wholly a good thing that the downtown has become a walkers’ haven, though the pendulum may have swung a bit too far from the days when street-crossers risked life and limb even in crosswalks. In a display of what could be called do-gooderism run amok, some drivers are insisting on stopping for pedestrians intent on crossing Franklin Street at mid-block, away from crosswalks.

    Jaywalking is a small-town privilege, with no harm done as long as those who opt not to walk the half of a block or less to a crosswalk  understand the onus is on them to cross without conflicting with vehicular traffic.

    Drivers who stop and encourage jaywalkers to cross can push congestion past the tolerable level and, worse, expose street crossers to danger from drivers coming from the opposite direction who are not inclined to commit acts of misguided kindness.

    While Wisconsin law makes it clear that motor vehicles must yield to pedestrians crossing streets and roads in crosswalks, there is nothing in the statutes that requires drivers to stop for people crossing elsewhere.

    The law puts a burden on pedestrians too: It is illegal for pedestrians, even in crosswalks, to cross so suddenly that “it is difficult for the operator of a vehicle to yield.”

    Those are sensible laws. The Wisconsin traffic law setting the speed limit on interstate-type highways at 65, on the other hand, is outdated and overdue for change.

Too many prisoners PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 21 August 2013 16:03

The legacy of politically motivated laws usurping judges’ power is the burden on U.S. and Wisconsin taxpayers of a bloated prison system

An initiative to reduce the staggering financial and humanitarian cost of the long-term incarceration of nonviolent offenders in federal prisons was announced last week by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who said federal prosecutors would no longer file charges that carry draconian mandatory minimum sentences against defendants who are not accused of crimes of violence.

    The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This country has about 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners. Many of those prisoners are serving decades-long sentences mandated by Congress for low-level drug violations.

    The Obama administration’s move to address this shameful situation, welcome but years late, follows the lead of states that have recognized the folly of the lock-’em-up-forever approach to crime-fighting.

    A number of states have cut their imprisonment rates markedly. Texas, for example, though known as a tough law-and-order state, has reduced its incarceration rate by 7%, enough to save $2 billion in prison costs, without compromising public safety. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, prisons cost taxpayers more than ever.

     In the current state budget, for the first time in history, more taxpayer dollars—$2.25 billion—are budgeted for the prison system than for the University of Wisconsin system.

    Passing that sorry milestone is the result of prison populations that shot steeply upward from 1990 to 2008, the year Wisconsin peaked with an incarceration rate higher than all but six states.

    Wisconsin’s prison boom was fueled by the same mistake that has filled federal prisons with nonviolent offenders: legislators usurping the power of judges.

    In Congress, it was mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders that hijacked the discretion of federal judges as part of the ever-failing war on drugs.

    In Wisconsin, it was “truth in sentencing” legislation that took away the parole option, keeping inmates who have earned release incarcerated..

    These were popular laws at the time. Now they are albatrosses hanging from taxpayers’ necks.

    Wisconsin has shown no ability to crawl out from under the suffocating weight of “truth in sentencing.” Early-release programs have been tried and rescinded by the Legislature several times.

    The state now finds itself in a position where a UWM study found that Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for black males of any state. And while the state’s total prison population numbers are not that extreme, its incarceration rate is more than double that of Minnesota.

    Other states, even hard-core Texas, have made progress against the economic and social burden of overincarceration by investing in drug rehabilitation programs, community supervision and vocational training.

    Wisconsin needs a comprehensive plan to reform its correctional system.

    Legislators of both parties have given this lip service, but still seem cowed by the fear that any progressive change in this regard could be characterized as “soft on crime.” This in spite of that fact that no one is advocating going easy on violent criminals.

    The arguments that resonate most forcefully with officials in this state seem to be economic ones. So consider this:

    A year-long study by Human Impact Partners, a respected non-partisan research organization, found that a $75 million investment into alternative-to-incarceration programs would save Wisconsin taxpayers $150 million in incarceration costs.

    Many states have proven findings like that to be valid, to the benefit of their citizens. Wisconsin must join them.

The ethanol mistake PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 14 August 2013 13:53

The promise of renewable energy from biofuels was lost when corn needed to feed humans became the source of the mandated gasoline additive

Wisconsin small-engine makers, including Briggs & Stratton, which owns the Port Washington-born Simplicity garden tractor brand and operates a testing facility here, were turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court in their petition to block the sale of gasoline with a 15% ethanol content.

    But now it appears that they and everyone else who would be damaged in some way by increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline (that’s just about all of us) may get relief from the awakening of the Environmental Protection Agency to the fact that the ethanol mandate is unsustainable.

    The mandate is expressed in the numbers of gallons of ethanol refiners are required to put into the U.S. gasoline supply. For 2013, it’s 13.8 billion gallons, which yields about a 10% ethanol content. The mandated content is slated to increase to more than 15 billion gallons by 2015, which would  result in gasoline consisting of 15% ethanol or more.

    Now the EPA is signaling it may back off on the mandate. That’s good news, but let’s hope this modest progress doesn’t deter the bipartisan movement that is picking up steam in Congress from doing what needs to be done and repealing the ethanol mandate altogether.

    When the mandate was put in place in 2007 it was well intentioned. Six years later it stands as a classic example of the damage that can be wrought by unintended consequences.

    Those include:

    Driving up the cost of food. Most American ethanol is made from corn. As much as 40% of the corn crop is needed to meet the ethanol mandate, straining the corn supply, thus raising the price of the grain used in numerous food products.

    Limiting world hunger relief efforts by diverting corn needed for food to fuel.

    Increasing the price of gasoline by forcing refiners to buy more ethanol than they can safely blend into gasoline.

    Converting woodland, grassland and land used for crops less damaging to the soil to corn  production.

    Exacerbating, rather than relieving, engine emission pollution problems because of the fossil fuel demands of corn ethanol production.

    And if the EPA does not back off on scheduled ethanol content increases, the list can be lengthened to include damage to small air-cooled engines and even to older car and truck engines.

    The good intention of the ethanol mandate was to reduce dependence of foreign oil. That has happened. Petroleum consumption, from both foreign and domestic sources, has declined markedly. But the ethanol mandate deserves no credit for this.

    The recession caused the initial decline, but now that trend is being sustained by remarkable gains in the fuel efficiency of automobiles attributable to government regulation. These are mandates that, unlike ethanol, actually work. The impact of the mandate that new cars double 2010 fuel economy stands by 2025 is already being seen in more miles per gallon for many vehicles.

    The irony here is that achieving ethanol’s original goal is what is exposing the ethanol mandate as a mistake. Gas consumption today is about 20% less than what 2007 projections predicted. Because of reduced demand, there is not enough gasoline being refined to use all the ethanol being produced.

    Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the EPA will probably reduce the ethanol mandate. But that will just make the problem slightly more tolerable. Congress needs to make the problem go away.

    Even if it worked to reduce dependence on foreign oil, it would be fundamentally wrong to turn food into fuel, but it doesn’t work. So it’s doubly wrong.

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