How much is the city of Madison committed to its cars? Consider these numbers from Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's proposed 2009 capital budget:
City spending on roads would increase 60%, from $40.2 million to $64.4 million.
Of this total road budget, 17% is dedicated to highway expansion. This at a time when the city's annual population growth rate is 0.8%.
Cash bus fares would rise by 50 cents, to $2.
This is a highway-heavy road budget, as anti-green as it gets. And when I say anti-green, I'm not necessarily talking about the tree-hugging kind. This budget is bad for our economy. The emphasis on cul-de-sacs, cars and sprawl sets us up for broken budgets forever.
Already, Madison spends millions of dollars a year maintaining the overbuilt roads of yesteryear. If implemented, the mayor's budget would hardwire us to spiraling transportation costs for years to come.
The capital budget defines the urban landscape. Will ours be welcoming to pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and cars? Or just cars?
A casual look at areas where transit ridership, walking and bicycling is highest suggests it would be wise to invest in smaller, interconnected streets, mixed use and appropriate density. These are the neighborhoods that hold their value in times of high energy costs.
Unfortunately, Mayor Cieslewicz seems unaware of how high energy costs affect his own constituents. His capital budget favors the construction of car-only places. Yet the ever-expanding numbers of local foreclosures, which are occurring in disproportionate numbers beyond the Beltline, suggest that an invisible hand has rendered its verdict: Car-only development is not good for Madison's economy.
In fact, car-oriented development is terrible for our tax base. To make up for valuation declines in the car-oriented burbs, the mill rate will eventually have to go up. This will deal a double whammy to homeowners in reasonably scaled, car-optional neighborhoods.
When taxes rise so we can build wasteful car-oriented development, disproportionately paid for by those who live more modestly, something is awry.
As the city council deliberates the mayor's proposed budget, Madisonians should be asking some tough questions. First and foremost: Why is our city planning and building neighborhoods that do not provide transportation choice?
Narrow residential streets, appropriate densities and mixed-use development in economically stable neighborhoods let families choose the transportation mode that fits their budget. Gas prices too high? Looks like the kids will be walking to practice today. Maybe we'll take the bus instead of driving. Maybe we'll shop for groceries closer to home. Or not. The choice is there.
It's not there in new neighborhoods. Single-use, low-density development with gargantuan residential streets and monstrous arterial highways dictate car use for every trip to anywhere. Thus, these neighborhoods cannot hold their value when the homeowner has but two choices: Fill the SUV or pay the mortgage.
Meanwhile, spiraling increases in debt on highway construction is sucking the city's operating budget dry. Of Cieslewicz's $237.8 million operating budget for 2009, 11% is earmarked for debt service, up from 9.6% in 2008. And this is projected to rise to 17% in three years.
That's one reason the mayor is looking to help balance the budget by hiking bus fares. And not just bus riders are affected. The loss of bus ridership due to rising fares and declining service means more congestion, longer commute times and less available parking for everyone who drives.
Finally, consider the environment. This summer the EPA proposed designating Dane County a non-attainment area over its failure to comply with national ambient air quality standards for small particles. Such a designation may limit what types of businesses locate or expand here.
In sum, we are all in this together. It is in everyone's best interest that we maintain and increase the number of bus riders and reduce our reliance on motor vehicles.
Thus it is vitally important during budget deliberations that Madison residents convey that we need more and cleaner transportation choices, not more pavement.
The city of Madison should reject the mayor's proposed budget and freeze road building at 2008 levels ($40,272,000), adjusted for inflation. It should use the savings to maintain the current $1.50 cash bus fare, restore productive bus routes that have been cut in recent years, increase funding of traffic-calming measures, and expand enforcement of crosswalk laws to improve pedestrian safety.
Our elected leaders must decide: Are they pro-business, taxpayer watchdogs or superhighway socialists?
Michael D. Barrett is an energy efficiency and neighborhood plan analyst with UrbanThoreau LLC.