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home : opinions : opinions August 22, 2017

4/6/2017 7:29:00 AM
Southern highways, northern poverty

We noticed a little item in our political digest this week about a proposed expansion of the I-94 East-West corridor in Milwaukee, specifically a call by the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin to widen the highway.

The project would cover 3.5 miles of I-94 between 16th and 70th streets, in an area where both the Brewers' stadium and a major cemetery is located. In the past, the DOT and Gov. Scott Walker have proposed spending more than $1.1 billion to rebuild and widen the highway to eight lanes.

However, the governor dropped engineering funding for the project in his 2017-19 budget proposal, he said because of local infighting, though an average person might see it as a community's struggle to exist against big businesses and their government allies.

In any case, the funding should stay dropped. Many community groups have opposed the expansion because of its incursion into neighborhood areas, and they have also argued that the expanded highway would isolate minorities and segregate Milwaukee even more than it already is. Environmental groups have pointed to increased pollution that would come with highway expansion.

Those are valid points, but our concern is more economic, and it is not just a matter for those who live in southeastern Wisconsin. This project - and other infrastructure projects like it - will very much affect Northwoods' residents.

Put simply, the $1 billion that would be spent on the project is nothing more than a hand out to those cities and suburbs and a big subsidy for businesses looking to lessen business infrastructure costs. So of course the Milwaukee business community supports the funding.

As the commercial realtors rightly point out, businesses factor in infrastructure costs when making a location decision. So, sure, a billion-dollar bounty from government helps make a decision to locate in southeastern Wisconsin easier.

But the realtors are making only half a point. For if businesses had to pay their infrastructure costs, all else being equal, choosing some place other than Milwaukee and its suburbs might mean choosing a location elsewhere in Wisconsin, such as central or northern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee's loss is not necessarily Wisconsin's loss.

To be sure, cutting state funding for superfluous highway projects in southern Wisconsin won't mean an IKEA or Mayfair Collection will suddenly pop up in Minocqua, but it is to make the point that when government subsidizes business activities in defined geographical areas - and highway construction is a business sub­sidy, make no mistake - it is distorting markets and economic decision-making in favor of those regions at the expense of other regions.

When one considers the pittance of tourism dollars northern Wisconsin receives compared to the billions of state dollars flowing to southern Wisconsin in business subsidies, including highways, no wonder our region is the only region of the state losing population.

As usual, it's follow the money, and the people have.

Building highways for big business's satisfaction through communities where the people object to those highways is not what government should be subsidizing. Being a highway contractor for corporate America is not a core government function, the last time we checked.

And that is what those who support this highway expansion want the state to be. One statistic underscores just how much this is a sop to big business: According to a 1000 Friends of Wisconsin report in 2014, traffic counts along that stretch of highway decreased 8 percent between 2000 and 2012.

Repairs and maintenance might well be in order, but expansion seems hardly necessary.

If business truly needs a highway expansion along that route, then let business pay for it - assuming they can get local approval - and tolling is the perfect way to make that happen. After all, the vast majority of the traffic on that stretch of interstate is commercial.

If the cost is too much for them, some businesses might decide to leave for a better quality of life in northern Wisconsin. So we say let the markets work without distortion, and we can't help but win here in the North.

We sure can't do any worse.

None of this is to say government can't help promote a good business environment, but it does not need to sate crony capitalist interests in Milwaukee and the southern tier of the state to do so. Indeed, ending pointless subsidies to greedy corporations - such as giving big bucks to Kohl's to create jobs it had already created - would be helpful to true job creation.

The best corporate subsidy of all is simply removing government as much as possible from the equation. That first and foremost means lower corporate taxes, and probably the elimination of the personal income tax.

That would boost prosperity for everybody statewide, not just southern cronies with politicians in their pockets. It would level the geographic playing field in economic development.

And how would we pay for those tax cuts? Well, for starters, we could axe the billions of dollars in geographic-specific subsidies that benefit certain players and certain regions.

And the state can get started by permanently taking the $1.1-billion cost of the I-94 East-West corridor off the table.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, April 15, 2017
Article comment by: Eileen Zignego

I do not know the exact numbers but MILLIONS were spent on the Wausau interchanges in the past years. No one up north complained about that and from my traveling experience the traffic did not require such expansion.

Milwaukee area freeways are overloaded. A fact whether or not you feel northern WI roads need more attention. The number of frequent travelers in Milwaukee freeways far outweighs the traffic in Northern WI.

A big fancy new highway will not bring a Von Maur or Mayfair collections to Northern WI but better freeways in the Milwaukee area make travel for everyone including all Wisconsin residents traveling to downtown, the Brewers stadium or the airport safer.

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