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No help for the rough-road-weary PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 05 October 2016 18:11

In the Town of Saukville, it’s principle over potholes. 

At its Oct. 20 meeting, the Saukville Town Board refused to endorse a Wisconsin Towns Association resolution urging state officials to increase funding to maintain rural roads.

This probably struck some Town of  Saukville residents as strange, considering that their town is one of the neediest in the state when comes to fixing roads. Town drivers know all too well that many miles of those roads have deteriorated to the point where they do not meet basic standards for safe, minimally comfortable travel.

Town Chairman Don Hamm and Supr. Mike Denizen (the only board members at the meeting) declined to sign on with the appeal for increased road funding because the resolution includes  a reference to “a responsible level of bonding,” in other words borrowing, as part of a road financing solution. 

That’s an oddly narrow justification for withholding support for an effort that calls for more generous state road aid for Wisconsin towns. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that borrowing for road work has a bad name in Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker’s insistence that increasing the state’s highway debt load beyond what many consider a responsible level of bonding is the only acceptable way to catch up with deferred road maintenance and construction has stopped progress toward sustainable transportation funding as surely as a lane-closing crash brings a stretch of I-94 in Milwaukee to a standstill.

Increasing borrowing instead of finding ways to raise revenue for highway spending is so unpopular that there is a battle brewing over it within the governor’s own Republican party. A number of legislators have signalled that the logical funding alternative of increasing the gas tax would be a better alternative than further borrowing.

Walker should look eastward for enlightenment on this issue. The governor of New Jersey last week agreed to a 23-cent per gallon gas tax increase. That governor happens to be Chris Christie, who famously sings from the same all-taxes-are-evil songbook as Walker and had adamantly refused for years to consider a gas tax increase. He was forced to change his tune when New Jersey’s debt-laden transportation trust fund ran dry trying to keep up with deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

Here in Wisconsin, where the transportation fund is also severely stressed, a small gas tax increase, say a nickel or even less a gallon, would get transportation funding on the road to sustainability with an impact on residents that would be far from a hardship.

In justifying the refusal to back the Towns Association campaign for increased funding for rural roads, Hamm mentioned that Town of Saukville residents “don’t support the idea of borrowing to fix our roads.” He apparently was referring to a vote by a majority of residents at a town meeting against borrowing for road work. But that was about borrowing by the Town of Saukville, not the state. It’s a long stretch to say that means town residents don’t want more money from the state if one of its sources is borrowing.                    

    In fact, there is much for town residents to like in the association’s resolution, which supports the broad-based Wisconsin road funding campaign called “Just Fix It.” Taken in its entirety, the resolution is a well-reasoned appeal for a balanced approach to road funding that, rather than supporting irresponsible borrowing, criticizes it while advocating for increased gas tax and registration fees. 

“Wisconsin’s over-reliance on borrowing eats away at the state’s segregated funding sources—the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees—which increasingly pay debt service rather than fund transportation needs,” the resolution states with perfect accuracy.

The resolution also points out that state funding for local roads is now less per capita than it was in 1986.

The Saukville board’s rejection of the Towns Association resolution won’t have much effect on its chances of success, but a vote of support for an effort to achieve sustainable highway funding and get a fair share of it for rural roads would likely have been seen as a welcome gesture of concern for rough-road-weary town residents.

Drivers of all ages could use education PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 28 September 2016 18:17

For Wisconsin 16-year-olds, one of the most eagerly anticipated yet dreadfully feared coming-of-age rituals is the driver’s license road test.

Teenage daydreams of adultlike independence have ridden along for generations with nervous want-to-be drivers and stern DMV examiners in that hands-on test of motor vehicle handling skills and knowledge of the rules of the road.

Now there’s talk from the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles of excusing some driver’s license applicants from the test. We will interrupt the cheering of 16-year-olds to discuss why this sounds like a good idea.

The DMV is proposing a pilot program in which people who successfully complete classroom and behind-the-wheel driver’s education courses would qualify for licenses without taking a road test. The courses would have to be given by driving schools monitored and certified by the state through regular audits. Graduates of other driver ed programs, including those operated by school districts, would not qualify for the exemption.

More than two-thirds of the DMV road tests are taken by teenagers. These young people should be the best drivers on the road, what with their keen eyesight and quick reflexes, not to mention bodies so limber they can actually turn their heads to back up properly (unlike some members of other age groups who have been known to send downtown Port Washington traffic into gridlock while trying to execute a parallel parking maneuver by means of rear-view mirror).

Yet 16 to 19-year-old drivers have the highest accident rate of any age group. The vulnerability of youth to questionable judgment and self-perceived immortality surely has much to do with that. Driver ed courses can’t do much about it, nor can road tests detect it. The only effective remedy seems to be aging. 

According to the DMV, about 25% of all license applicants fail the road test. There is reason to believe that if people who already had licenses had to take the test, the failure rate would be a lot higher.

Incompetent driving is a frustrating, often frightening staple of street and highway travel that has led some road safety organizations to insist that motor-vehicle crashes no longer be routinely called accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that only 6% of motor vehicle crashes are caused by vehicle malfunctions, weather and similar factors that are not under the control of drivers.

Distracted driving (especially talking on telephones and texting while driving), speeding and drunken driving cause crashes. They are the leading causes, but they’re followed closely by what might be called dumb driving—as in slow drivers blocking passing lanes and clueless drivers barging into roundabouts without yielding to right-of-way vehicles—and angry driving, commonly known as road rage.

This helps explain why there are such high hopes for driverless cars and why the federal government is preparing to issue rules that will facilitate the development of self-driving vehicles while setting achievable safety standards.

Computers are never likely to be perfect drivers, but it shouldn’t be hard for them to do better than a good many of the human drivers on the roads.

In the meantime, if the Wisconsin DMV goes ahead with its no-test program, it could motivate more aspiring drivers to enroll in high-quality driver education programs that would produce better drivers. 

For certain, we need them.

Mum’s the word PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 19:38

City officials knew about the most important happening in their contentious effort to turn Port Washington lakefront land into a commercial building site for three weeks before it was revealed in this newspaper, but said not a word about it to the public.

The fact that Christopher Long had informed the city government in late August that he was abandoning his attempt to buy a marina parking lot for an entertainment complex called the Blues Factory was information the public had a right to know.

Instead of sharing the information about this remarkable turn of events with the citizens of Port Washington—who, after all, are the owners of the marina land—the mayor, aldermen, city administrator and city attorney kept it as their secret.

The public finally learned about it in last week’s Ozaukee Press. It was Christopher Long, not city officials, who informed the Press he had withdrawn from the project. 

In a Sept. 13 email to this newspaper, Long not only confirmed he was giving up his quest, he revealed more information about the shaky status of the Blues Factory than had anyone in the city government when he wrote he was pulling out because “there remains a gap that must be bridged” in securing financing for the project.

The decision casts significant doubt on the viability of the proposed development. Highly respected as a Madison-area community project consultant, Long was the driving force of the development he named the Blues Factory. He conceived the idea of a Paramount Music-themed complex and was its primary planner and most articulate and persuasive advocate. If he couldn’t convince investors and lenders to commit to the project, it begs the question—who could?

It is understandable that for officials who have touted the Blues Factory as a surefire generator of “catalytic” economic development, Long’s withdrawal based on the inability to find financing to qualify for a generous taxpayer subsidy to buy a prime piece of public lakefront land is embarrassing. Embarrassment, however, is not a valid excuse for secrecy. 

Nor is it grounds for holding closed Common Council sessions to discuss the Blues Factory. The withholding of information about Long’s departure was in keeping with the city government’s modus operandi of revealing as little as possible to the public. To date, the council has held nine closed sessions concerning the development.

This frequency of closed meetings, rarely seen in any Wisconsin municipality, flouts the ethic embodied in the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law as set forth in the statute’s very first paragraph, which holds that “it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with  the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

In justifying excluding the public, officials have repeatedly cited an exemption to the open meetings law when “competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”

The Open Meetings Law compliance guideline for officials written by former Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen warns against exploiting the broad language of the exemption in the manner evident in the Port Washington city hall. “Mere inconvenience, delay, embarrassment, frustration or even speculation as to the probability of success would be an insufficient basis to close a meeting,” Van Hollen wrote. 

During the period in which city officials, but not the public, were aware that Long had given up on the Blues Factory, Port Washington developer Gertjan van den Broek was somehow persuaded to take the lead in the development. Van den Broek had been associated with the Blues Factory as a Port Washington connection to the project, but was not active in its planning or promotion. Last week he was granted a privilege not available to his fellow taxpayers—entrée to the most recent closed council session, where it was decided to extend the deadline to provide proof of financing indefinitely.

The persistence of the council, egged on by the development’s cheerleader in chief, Mayor Tom Mlada, in pushing to sell lakefront land for the Blues Factory against a wave of public opposition has clearly undermined confidence in the city government, an unfortunate state of affairs made worse by keeping the people of Port Washington in the dark about key details of the project.

More of the same is all but guaranteed by the city officials’ initial response to the departure of the development’s creator, which has been to dig in deeper. The response that would serve the community far better would be for the aldermen of the Common Council to rise above that obdurate mindset and put an end to city participation in the Blues Factory venture—and do it openly in full public view.

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