Stillwater Bridge: A “Boondoggle” or just a Boon?

After yesterday’s passing of a bill to replace the Stillwater Bridge sponsored by Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) by a large bipartisan majority, the commentary around the Capitol continued to reflect on the $225 million that had just been spent on what our very own Representative Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) called a “boondoggle bridge”.

In his press release, Hulsey urged members to vote against the bill because over 1,000 other deficient bridges exist in Wisconsin. Think about it. Yep, he just argued that we shouldn’t fix one because there are other problems out there. Not a good start.  Shahla Werner, the Director of the regional Sierra Club is also quoted in the release saying,

“This bill will pave the way for constructing a $633 million bridge just seven miles north of an
eight lane bridge while ignoring more reasonable bridge upgrades…This massive project unnecessarily
jeopardizes the federally protected St. Croix Scenic Riverway.”

Now, the good Director’s first two claims are true: the bridge will cost upwards of $633 million and is about 7 miles north of Hudson, Wisconsin which has I94 running through it into Minnesota. While true, those statements are misleading.

    1. The first is that Wisconsin is not spending $633 million; Wisconsin authorized bonding for $225 million, our share of the bridge. (The additional implication that this will be funded through bonds and not the internal budget is another matter entirely…)
    2. The second statement about Hudson’s I94 bridge is misleading in that its not exactly an empty bridge. During peak time the bridge is bumper to bumper for all the lanes, cars backed up from St. Paul 10 miles farther into Minnesota. That doesn’t sound like a bridge capable of adding another 18,000 cars per day without extreme congestion and cost.  Additionally, the next nearest bridge is in my home town of Osceola, and is built just like the I35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis a few years back prompting strict weight limits and frequent inspection. Neither option can handle the strain.
So, it’s clear that a bridge is needed, but why this bridge now? Why not one of the other 1,000 bridges that Hulsey spoke about? I tossed out some historical perspective yesterday but today I’m going to explain why this bridge is needed, not necessarily more than others, but is needed.
  • According to data collected by the Federal Highway Administration, the Stillwater bridge has two peers that have over 10,000 vehicles per day and a structural deficiency rating of less than 3/100.  (Stillwater bridge is labeled as the Township of St. Joseph in this data) So that already puts it near the top of the replacement list. In all honesty, if the bill included provisions to bond a total of $600 million for all three of these bridges, I would be ok with that.  People are at risk daily because of political gridlock and that’s not okay.
  • Stillwater bridge closes annually in the Spring when the water of the river rises to touch the deck and sometimes flood the roadway of the bridge. That water enhances the corrosion of the beams, many of which are original 1931 steel, leading to the infamous rust holes in the support structure. That’s right, I can see through the bridge’s supports because they are so weak and rusted away.  Every so often, a large truck will come across the bridge and actually hit the beams, bending the steel!
  • For more commentary and public views (some of which are blatantly ignorant of the past forty years of regional history) check out the recent MPR discussion between the Mayor of Stillwater and a representative from the Sierra Club. It’s interesting.
As far as Brett Hulsey goes, as the lone member of the Transportation Committee to vote against the bill, I just have to question his reasoning. Without any other bridge funding proposals on the table, the argument of we should fund others just doesn’t fly. Representative Hulsey, you’re on the damn committee charged with writing these sort of things. If fixing other bridges is really important to you, then write the legislation.

Zombie Day, a Basket of Negative Publicity

I’ll preface this by saying that I am on the Board of Directors of United Council, which seems to imply that I was part of a board that could, you know, direct action for the organization. Well, this novel concept is not very well embraced in United Council, and today’s “Students are as good as dead to legislators” Zombie Day was no exception.  The plan for students to come, dressed up as the living dead is certainly a cute idea but cute doesn’t have  a lot of currency around the Capitol, even among Democratic offices.

Now, United Council has done stupid things before, and I’ve even participated, but at least the stupid events that I’ve done have been with approval from the Board. Newly elected President of United Council Seth Hoffmeister, if you’re reading this, please use this occasion, regardless of if you like or dislike the event, to assert the Board’s authority over staff.

United Council internal crap aside, I have numerous other problems with the horde.

  1. Poor theatrics. Staffers didn’t know they were Zombies unless I told them about the event because the makeup was ambiguous and the students were walking around like normal. You have to sell these things.
  2. Don’t commit crimes by smearing your paint on the carpet of the Co-Chair of JFC’s office. Additionally, if you do a “die-in” somewhere, the last 3 students who haven’t been dragged out should NEVER just get up and leave. Way to stay united on that one.
  3. Don’t disrespect other students for the sake of spiting anyone. Especially fellow students. Especially those being honored in a state-wide ceremony. This was a once in a lifetime thing for these kids and it was ruined for a quick photo op. Think it really affected Governor Walker’s morale? No, but I can bet that he was mad as hell for the athletes whose ceremony you interrupted. I know I am mad as hell for those athletes when I wasn’t even there and I’m VERY sympathetic to the plight of students, you know, from being one. Edit: Video added below

I’m most upset about the Special Olympics ceremony but I know many folks have chimed in on Facebook and over at North Park Street on the topic so I’ll refrain from repeating those.
And as a side note, the staffers who saw the zombies request werewolves, pixies, and ogres next. So, there’s something.

Make Our School A Prison

Yesterday, a letter began floating around the interwebz from a superintendent in Michigan to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Consider the life of a Michigan prisoner. They get three square meals a day. Access to free health care. Internet. Cable television. Access to a library. A weight room. Computer lab. They can earn a degree. A roof over their heads. Clothing. Everything we just listed we DO NOT provide to our school children.

This is why I’m proposing to make my school a prison. The State of Michigan spends annually somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per prisoner, yet we are struggling to provide schools with $7,000 per student. I guess we need to treat our students like they are prisoners, with equal funding. Please give my students three meals a day. Please give my children access to free health care. Please provide my school district Internet access and computers. Please put books in my library. Please give my students a weight room so we can be big and strong. We provide all of these things to prisoners because they have constitutional rights. What about the rights of youth, our future?!

A profound letter, to be sure, and one that is just as applicable to Wisconsin as Michigan.  I will be sending this letter around to a few folks I know who are superintendents in Northern Wisconsin and encouraging a similar letter be drafted to our governor and our legislators.  It may be too late in this budget cycle, but any good lobbyist will tell you that the budget cycle starts before the previous one is even passed.

Let’s start getting into these offices now and getting this message onto the desks of folks, regardless of if they will still be there in two years *cough* recalls *cough*. The cycle starts now, let’s make our schools prisons so we can be treated like prisoners.


Thanks to Michael Moscicke for pointing this out to me. He will be a boon to ASM’s previously lacking knowledge and efficacy at the state level.

New Badger Partnership: Playing Off Fear

A lot of the critiques of the Badger Partnership have been a little off base with what the current situation is, and what the legislation proposes to do. Sam Seering posted the most recent rebuttals to some of these rumors floating around and is overall, pretty comprehensive.

On a side note, later today, I will post about the Student Representatives meeting Brandon and I went to.  This was the first venue where all the critiques of the NBP were very well articulated, thought out, and actually reasonable concerns that go beyond vague fear-mongering notions of “privatization” or “militarization”.  So, thanks Reps 🙂


New Badger Partnership: TV Time

Shameless self promotion here.  Check out this clip on Channel 3 Nightly News from last night talking about the impact of the budget on students.

Walker’s Budget Cuts $250 Million From UW System.

New Badger Partnership: Governor to Release Budget as Support for NBP Grows

Well, this is it.  Today at 4 pm CT, Governor Walker is expected to release his 2011-13 Biennium Budget, which could include many of the provisions that Chancellor Martin has advocated for in the New Badger Partnership.  This according to WisPolitics:

The UW System is looking at a cut of about $250 million with UW-Madison taking the biggest hit of the campuses. To help offset that reduced aid, Madison would be spun off from the rest of the system into an independent authority, according to sources.

This is nothing new.  I projected a $250 million cut to the UW System last week.

Support for the NBP is growing, too.

Badger Herald ed board:

As University of Wisconsin Chancellor Biddy Martin watched this state’s government face deeper and deeper financial woes with the approach of the 2011-2013 budget, she could have sat back and asked the Legislature to consider the university’s own difficult financial situation.

She could have asked for less cuts, for provisions that would keep tuition low and financial aid flowing. She could have asked for the now-modest framework laid out in the original New Badger Partnership last fall.

But as budget details began to emerge and the state’s cost-cutting measures spurred a crisis of national importance, something became clear: Now is the time to ask for everything UW needs, and to package that request in a way the state cannot ignore.

The result, tentatively laid out in draft documents, letters and conversations, is a proposal that would give UW public authority status and significantly greater freedom from state oversight. The details currently backed by Martin would separate the university from the UW System, allocate most state funding in a single block grant and allow an independent governing board to set university policy and tuition rates.

Badger Herald LTE on Biddy, “the true champion of transparency”:

On the opposite end of the spectrum has been Martin. She has spent hours on Twitter responding directly to the concerns raised by students who are trying to understand the implications of this new direction. When a memo between Martin and Walker showed the chancellor supporting Madison spinning off from the entire system, she was quick to provide details to the student body about her position. In a recent e-mail, Martin provided her presentation to the Board of Regents. In the e-mail, she made it clear the question of whether or not Madison should separate from the entire system “is not the question that has guided our work.” Instead Martin made it clear that she and the university are doing the best they can to “create innovative possibilities” to “deal with the extreme challenges” that face all of us — students, faculty and staff.

Several Research Professors in a Daily Cardinal LTE:

Even in difficult budgetary times, the state can continue to invest in its flagship university by providing the types of flexibilities sought by Chancellor Martin. We seek your enthusiasm and support for the major impact this initiative will embody, and encourage the Governor, the Legislature and UW System to help us realize the goals of the New Badger Partnership, for the benefit of our students and Wisconsin.

And then of course, we have our very own Adam Johnson.

Stay tuned to the Campus First as we explore the budget bill in depth.


Sifting and Winnowing – Guest Blog Post

This is a guest blog post by former ASM Chair and current rally organizer Tyler Junger

Two days ago I, like every other person who’s enrolled in or works at UW-Madison, received an email from Chancellor Martin.  In this message, she forwarded a memo from UW System President Kevin Reilly, Regent President Chuck Pruitt, and Regent Vice President Michael Spector.  If you haven’t read it, the full message can be found here.

A few thoughts on that letter itself.

First, the two presidents and the vice president could have chosen to use some less obviously slanted language in their letter.  Let’s dissect it just a little bit.

I suppose the most obvious place to start is with their insistence that releasing Madison from the UW System is a “radical departure from earlier statements about administrative flexibility and efficiency.”  Let’s make this clear: Chancellor Martin never once promised that UW-Madison would remain part of the UW System.  Quite frankly, she never had the power or authority to do so.  As a matter of fact, System itself demonstrates this when they later say that the chancellor had “made great efforts to promote the need for new management flexibility [that] could be achieved without severing ties with the rest of the UW System.”  Could those efficiencies be gotten without a separation?  I suppose they could.  But that’s not the hand we’ve been dealt.

From everything I’ve heard thus far, the decision to separate Madison from the rest of the UW System was made by the governor and his staff.  It would be foolhardy for Madison to say that we wouldn’t accept the flexibilities that the governor was willing to write into his budget because they dealt with the uncomfortable subject of breaking with the UW System.  As Adam Johnson has pointed out, without some way to use the money we have better, the value of a degree from UW-Madison will decrease substantially over the next few years.  The reputation of an institution is incredibly easier to maintain than it is to rebuild.  Every person who has a vested interest in higher education in Wisconsin should recognize this.  Who would the Madison campus be serving best if they rejected the governor’s offer because of an uncomfortable decision made by him?

Back to the letter.

I’ll say for the record that the language is melodramatic in calling the release of Madison from the system a “fragmentation” of UW System, but that’s neither here nor there.

My next point of contention is whether a release from system would mean that UW-Madison is indeed “destined to compete against other UW campuses.”  Isn’t it the case that they already do?  Whenever UW System receives its allocation from the state, does anyone really believe that the individual institutions just sit on their hands and wait to see how the regents decide to divvy up the money?  To be honest, that can’t be the case.  To believe so would be utterly ridiculous.  There’s already competition among the institutions to receive money from system.  This is, in my opinion, a UW System power play in the most obvious sense; they don’t want to have their control over Madison taken away.  I mean, the point is understandable.  Why would anyone willfully give up authority over the institution that is seen, objectively (and I apologize for the Maditude inherent in this statement) as the most prestigious of all the UW System institutions?  If I were a regent interested in keeping my ducks in a row, I’d completely agree. But I’m not.

Frankly, I hope none of the members of the board are.  They weren’t installed into what’s seen as the crown jewel of the governor’s appointed positions because they’re greedy.  I like to believe that they were put there because they genuinely care about public education in Wisconsin.  I’ll get back to this after analyzing the letter.

Again I’ll say that System is being disingenuous when they say that “[t]his separation [is] a departure from the New Badger Partnership.”  The core principles promoted by UW-Madison’s New Badger Partnership Working Group never said that maintaining connection with UW System was a core principle of the plan.  The chancellor never promised that a release would never be on the table.  Indeed she pointed to many different models of governance that other public institutions have changed to in the recent past as examples of what Madison could become – this includes the University of Virginia, which is the model closest to the public authority that Governor Walker proposed.  As a side note, say what you will about the University of Virginia, but they were recently rated as the best buy among public universities nationally by the Princeton Review, and ranked second in providing “great financial aid,” coming in behind only the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts and beating out Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Yale (3, 4, 5, and 6 respectively.)  Let me repeat that: the model that Madison would be closest to offers the best value of public universities in the country, and offers better financial aid than the private Ivies.

And now we get to my favorite part of the letter.

“[A] number of Regents have asked that we schedule a special meeting of the Board where this specific topic – separating UW-Madison from the other campuses – can begin to receive thorough public consideration.”

My first thought: why has nobody on the board thought of having this conversation before it was thrust upon them?  Do we really expect the inertia of System to carry us through good times and bad?  Why is it that nobody has begun to ask difficult questions in the face of consistent and predictable budget cuts over the last few years?  Do we really need to just sit around, take our lumps, and raise tuition by 5.5% every year for every comprehensive institution, regardless of their individual needs or whatever circumstances they find themselves in?  To me, it seems like the easy way out.  And in my time in Madison, I have never been taught to take the easy way out.

Indeed, just the opposite is true.  There’s no cause and effect relationship between easy answers and right answers.  Sometimes you have to dig deeper.  And our regents have failed to do that.

Here’s my second thought on this Friday’s meeting: there’s an 80% chance that it’s a complete sham.

UW System is pissed that Madison would even propose to be separate from the UW System.  As I said above, such anger is understandable, but it is by no means acceptable.  When the presidents and vice president say that the regents want to meet specifically on the issue of Madison separating from UW System, I think they’re hiding something.  And that’s a problem.

Having been the chair of the ASM Student Council last year, I was necessarily familiar with Wisconsin’s Sunshine Laws – named as such because “sunshine is the best disinfectant” for government secrets (thanks for that one, Justice Brandeis.)  The following is taken from Wisconsin’s 2007 Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide:

“Every public notice of a meeting must give the “time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting, including that intended for consideration at any contemplated closed session, in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof.” Wis. Stat. § 19.84(2). The chief presiding officer of the governmental body is responsible for providing notice, and when he or she is aware of matters which may come before the body, those matters must be included in the meeting notice.

So is the following:

“In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether a person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed.”

Why is this important?  Because I think the regents are pissed.  I think System is pissed.  And I think this meeting on Friday is being convened under false pretenses.  I think that the meeting notice (which includes the following as the only non-administrative item on the agenda: Discussion: Potential separation of UW-Madison from the rest of the UW institutions) is intentionally vague.  I think that there are regents who see this as an opportunity to berate Madison, berate our chancellor, and stop this process in its tracks because they were behind the ball.  That is, quite simply, unacceptable.  If the performance of UW-Madison or the performance of Chancellor Martin become items that are discussed at this meeting, and if President Pruitt had even an inkling that it would come up beforehand, he is bound by state statute to inform the public of that fact.  It’s definitely a matter of public concern.  Want evidence?  Over the past week, there have been thousands of students fighting for the value of their degrees at the state capitol.  And if the regents are trying to scuttle these efforts because they’re jealous, afraid, and unwilling to have a tough conversation, that’s going to hurt every student at UW Madison for years to come.

If that’s the true purpose of this meeting, I can guarantee you one thing – those students will turn right around.  They’ll march down State Street, over Bascom Hill, and they’ll be standing outside Van Hise, ready to make their dissatisfaction known.

I hope that isn’t necessary.  But just to make sure, I’m submitting an open records request to UW System tonight.  I’m asking for all recorded correspondence between the three signatories of the letter to the Chancellor and the other regents and administrators in UW System that make even scant mention of separation or the Badger Partnership since January 7th.  I’ll pay for the request out of my own pocket.  And if there’s any evidence that this meeting was convened specifically to hurt Madison, you’re damned well going to hear about it.

I’m going to end by saying this: I hope that doesn’t happen.  I hope the meeting on Friday really ends up being a frank discussion on the merits of separating Madison from System.  It’s a tough conversation, I’ll concede that.  But since when do we shy away from tough conversations simply because they’re tough?  I’ll admit, the University of Wisconsin-Madison wasn’t part of the UW System back in 1894, but when did we stop asking tough questions and looking for tough answers??  When did we stop “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing, by which alone the truth can be found?”


-Tyler Junger