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.

The Stillwater Bridge: a Brief History

There are over 2,000 bridges in Wisconsin deemed to be structurally deficient and earlier yesterday, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bipartisan bill to rebuild the one at the center of one of the longest and strangest controversies between the Cheeseheads and East Dakota. Having lived in Osceola, Wisconsin, twenty miles from this bridge, I can assure you that I have traveled it extensively, and I’ve followed the history closely.

The Stillwater Bridge has gained notoriety over the years for being exceptionally frightening to drive (or walk!) across, and for being habitually closed for repairs and floods. Conversations about replacing the bridge started when the bridge turned 50 (in 1981) and when the Twin Cities was just beginning to grow enough to consider Stillwater a suburb.  Early on, there was much confusion over who should pay more for the bridge, Wisconsin or Minnesota?  Complicating matters more is the fact that the bridge lies on the St. Croix River National Scenic Riverway, an area with strict construction requirements and conservation laws. Nevertheless, plans had slowly trudged along.

In 1994, when it seemed like a new bridge would come soon (the current bridge could legally retire now…) two of my friends who lived in Stillwater at the time were subject to Minnesota’s Eminent Domain and their neighborhood was bought out for the new bridge that would soon be coming. Nearing twenty years after THAT, and the end is finally in sight. Governor Walker sent a letter to US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking for support in an exemption to the protections placed on the Scenic Riverway. This letter mirrors one sent by Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Gottleib to Secretary LaHood.

Both letters note that the appropriate Congressional process is being pursued by two matching resolutions S. 1134 in the Senate and H.R. 850 in the House. The Senate’s version features signatures from ALL FOUR of Wisconsin and Minnesota’s senators (Klobuchar, Franklin, and Kohl for the Democrats, and Johnson for the Republicans) Additionally, the House version features the four most affected congressmen in the states, Democrat Ron Kind who actually represents the district, and Republicans Sean Duffy, Michelle Bachmann, and Chip Cravaack.

This is as bipartisan as it gets folks and its exciting to see finally happen.

Tomorrow, a follow up post will appear where I make the case as to why this bridge should be funded, despite cries from the likes of Representative Brett Hulsey that its not necessary.

 


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.


United Council: The Rationale of Yes

Nearly all of you are aware that it is ASM’s election season once again (go VOTE if you haven’t, preferably for me 🙂 ), and again most of you know that United Council membership is again on the ballot. You may be receiving lots of invitations to vote one way or another and whichever way you vote is truly fine, as long as it is an informed vote.

Today, a large ad crying Vote NO! and an accompanying piece from the Editorial Board appeared in the Badger Herald.  While not denying that these groups have a right to express their thoughts, I wish it was at least accurate and informed.

The Ed Board piece comes from a group that only knows of United Council through press releases and having UC’s governmental relations guy, Michael, tell them what the story is at the capital.  While I commend them for trying to act in the best interest of campus, there are many factual errors in the piece.

There are two main errors within the main argument

  1. Technical colleges ARE NOT a part of United Council.  If anything we spend a lot of time thwarting them because our UW College system directly competes for talent, resources, and their very livelihoods
  2. Failed to mobilize students: This is a half truth.  In general the campaigns are not mass movement in nature. It’s more like Policy Wonk A from Madison meets Policy Wonk B from Stevens Point and they team with Policy Wonk C from Milwaukee in implementing a program that Policy Wonk D started at Parkside. That being said, United Council did take part in the protests against the Budget Repair Bill (specifically for our Teaching Assistants and Faculty) by funding buses and organizing students from around the state to come on down.

Folks, United Council is far from perfect.  We have infighting, personal issues, procedural snafus and overall legitimacy crisis; so basically, it’s the same as every student government that has ever existed.  With Madison likely to begin operating under a new administrative model after July 1, we need statewide support to continue.  We cannot think that issues that will affect UW System will not affect us.  Cuts to Education are top down, indiscriminate of models of administration.  Additionally, United Council maintains the largest archive of Shared Governance information in the state.  This archive has stuff from every school going back decades.  It’s absolutely essential this is preserved going into the brave new waters of public authority status where we will need to fight to keep Shared Governance as we know it.

Vote Yes.  A vote no is taking your ball and going home because the other kids playing ball are being mean to you. Let’s grow up a bit.  You can’t reform a system from the outside; you need to be at the table. Let’s stay at the table and keep ourselves open to our Badgers across the state.

-AJ

Disclaimer: I am a current Board member of United Council and am a candidate for President at the upcoming convention. Take anything from those statements that you wish.


New Badger Partnership: Going Viral?

The folks over at North Park Street alerted me to this video this morning and I thought it was worth posting on here.

While I’ve already gone over some of the criticisms in earlier posts, this video serves as a very brief summary of those points.  And it’s catchy and I just like it.

Disclaimer: After watching it a few times, I noticed some of the language used in the rebuttals is similar to my own commentary on this blog but neither I nor Brandon made this video.  Neither of us would even know where to begin…


Sam Polstein–ASM MVP?

I was once asked by a student newspaper reporter if Sam Polstein, current ASM Legislative Affairs Chair, was the unequivocal MVP for the 17th Session of ASM.  While I contend that ASM is only as strong as its weakest link, there is no question that Sam has shown an amazing amount of leadership and dedication to the student cause.

His latest efforts include protecting the student vote:

If S.B.6 is allowed to become law in its current form, it will undoubtedly disenfranchise Wisconsin students. In the fall 2010 election, Wisconsin had one of the highest student voter turnouts in the country. This bill would put an unwarranted burden on Wisconsin student voters, and turnout is unlikely to be as impressively high in future elections.

This is shocking, disheartening, and unnecessary to prevent the almost non-existent fraud in Wisconsin elections. Our government should be encouraging students to engage in the civic process.

Even though you’re not a Packer fan, Sam, go ahead and put on the belt.

(Thanks to University and State for pointing this out.)


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