Back to the Grid, Part 2: John Norquist on Reclaiming American Cities

brady_street.jpgBrady
Street, which boasts some of the best street life in Milwaukee, has
flourished thanks in part to the defeat of a nearby freeway spur and
the redevelopment that followed. Photo: Steve Filmanowicz.

As mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004, CNU
President John Norquist made urbanism and livability top priorities.
Some of his most notable achievements centered on the redevelopment of
highway corridors with street grids and infill, culminating with the demolition of the Park East Freeway in 2002
— one of the largest voluntary highway removal projects undertaken in
America. Other projects, like the introduction of a light rail system,
never reached fruition.

In the second part of our interview (read the first part here), Norquist discusses these victories and setbacks, and how federal policy can help cities and towns do the right thing.

Ben Fried:
Expanding the transit system in Milwaukee has been a very long,
protracted process. You wanted to build light rail. What sort of
resistance did you meet from other public officials?

Cincinnati,
Milwaukee, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland — the regional planning
commissions they have really aren’t looking out for city interests,
they’re looking out for the exurban interests.

John Norquist:
Any time I had to fix a problem at one level of government, there was
another one that would pop up. We had a Democratic governor, but then
we had a county exec who was against light rail. The mayor wasn’t
really for light rail. When I got elected mayor, I was for light rail
but the county exec was still against it, that was Dave Schultz in
1988. And then we had Tommy Thompson as governor who wasn’t for it. He
said he was open to it at the beginning when Schultz was against it.
And then once Schultz left, then Thompson became more against it. The
right wing talk shows went after it and so he followed their lead, you
know the local Rush Limbaugh types. And then it just seemed like every
step of the way, we get one group that had to be for it on the other
side. The county runs the transit system, so it’s kind of hard to do it
without them. If the city had run the transit system we would have been
able to do it right away.

It’s frustrating, because Milwaukee was always ranked by the
Federal Transit Administration as one of the best places to put in a
light rail, because it was built around the street car system. There
was over 350 miles of street car in Milwaukee at the end of the war,
200 miles of inner urban. We had a really, really good transit system
and by 1958 it was all gone. But the land use patterns were all built
around street car lines. Now I think my successor, Tom Barrett, has got
himself some clout with this. They put an earmark in the budget bill
that just passed that gave him control of a nice big chunk of money, so
he might be able to get that street car going.

BF: So the dispute between you and the county executives, is that emblematic, would you say, of the basic problem with MPOs?

JN:
It depends on who runs the MPO. New York and Chicago have their MPOs
under control. We have enough clout in Chicago that the local regional
planning commission — CMAP
— they’re not going to turn around and screw Chicago. Chicago has a
lot of representation on CMAP’s board. In New York, basically New York
runs its own regional system — sometimes the metro system has too much
interference from the state, but basically New York City can call its
own shot when it comes to planning. And that’s not true in a lot of
cities. Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, the
regional planning commissions they have really aren’t looking out for
city interests, they’re looking out for the exurban interests.

BF: We’ve got a potential freeway teardown project here in New York, the Sheridan Expressway, it was number two on CNU’s list of the top teardown candidates.
Could you walk us through what you had to go through with your freeway
teardown in Milwaukee — who did you have to win over to achieve that?

JN:
The Sheridan is ready to go. It has a nice low traffic count, so it’s
hard to argue that it’s really necessary. But what did I go through?
Well, the first thing was, it’s so counterintuitive to do these things
that the first reaction was from very reasonable people — ordinary
citizens, the traffic engineers, neighborhood people, even very
progressive people — “You want to do what? You want to tear that — what?
You know, it doesn’t compute, it sounds like a wacky thing to do. You
have to have patience and spend a lot of time in meetings letting
people beat the living hell out of you. And then you get to a certain
point where people say, “Hey, wait, I think I understand what you mean.
You’re saying the freeway’s a blighting influence.” And you just go
through all the arguments against it, but the biggest argument for it
is it just makes the place function a lot better and add more value and
be a place where people actually want to be.

In
the mid and late 70s a whole bunch of legislators were elected who were
against freeways, people who organized and went door to door. If we
hadn’t won those battles Milwaukee would have been devastated.

Most people don’t like standing next to freeways, it’s not a big
tourist attraction to stand next to a freeway. People kind of get the
aesthetics first and then eventually they get the economics. The
downtown property owners in Milwaukee really ended up being the most
enthusiastic supporters, with a few exceptions. And then you have to
overcome the bureaucratic obstacles. First obstacle is the state DOT
people have a hissy fit and tell you you’re going to have to pay the
money back on the structure you’re tearing down, which isn’t true. On
any of the projects that have come down — Portland, New York, San
Francisco, Milwaukee — not in even one case has there been
reimbursement for the road. Because the roads are at the end of their
design life, they have no positive value anyway. And then the other
thing they’ll say is, "It’ll cost money." They make the teardown costs
all visible, 100 percent, you know, "an overwhelming burden on the
backs of the hardworking taxpayer." And then the costs of rebuilding
the freeway, which in Milwaukee’s case were four times higher than
tearing it down and putting in a boulevard, they try to make that all
hidden, like that’s all paid for, you don’t even talk about that.

So you go through all these value calculation fights, and then
finally you need to play your political cards. In Milwaukee the
anti-freeway movement began in early 70s, and in the mid and late 70s a
whole bunch of legislators were elected who were against freeways,
people who organized and went door to door, they won the battles. If we
hadn’t won those battles Milwaukee would have been devastated, but
we’ve killed about half the freeways they had planned on building. And
that saved the city really from being in a very similar situation to
what Detroit is in right now.

BF: Are some of the freeway projects the Wisconsin DOT is planning now, are those in metro Milwaukee?

JN:
We have several on there, they’re all unnecessary, they’re all dead
weight loss. It’s really disgusting and it shows you how hard it is to
get them to look at it in a different way. The I-94 widening — it’s
already six lanes, they want to make it eight lanes from Milwaukee down
to the Illinois border. And they want to do a new interchange, called
the “Zoo Interchange,” which will cost close to $1 billion. A lot of
these stimulus projects are completely unnecessary and they don’t make
sense. To route your grade-separated traffic through the most expensive
real estate in the state of Wisconsin? It’s insane. They don’t do it in
Europe. They have freeways, but they’re between cities, not in cities.
They go around the outer edge with belt lines, but they don’t jam up
through the most built-up places, because it just concentrates traffic
and creates more congestion at the nodes.

A
lot of these stimulus projects are completely unnecessary and they
don’t make sense. To route your grade-separated traffic through the
most expensive real estate in the state of Wisconsin? It’s insane.

You can of course defeat congestion. Environmentalists sometimes say
that you can’t build your way out of congestion; that’s not true. It’s
been done in Detroit, they built their way out of congestion. They
built all these freeways all over Detroit and congestion is now
probably their lowest priority problem. They have a lot of other
problems, like they lost more than half their population, most of the
jobs, the real estate values collapsed. They tore down all the
streetcars by 1956 and built these freeways all over the city. So it
does work, if the only priority you have is reducing congestion, you
can do it by building these giant roads across cities. But then it’ll
hurt the city in every other way and they hurt the national economy
too, because your cities are what really drive value.

Look at it not just from a big city standpoint, look at it from a
medium- or small-sized city standpoint. Let’s say you were in New York
wine country and you come to Ithaca. In the old days, instead of a
bypass they’d have a truck route around the outer edge of the street
grid. You might go a little bit faster, 35 miles an hour instead of 25,
but it’s a little longer distance, so it’s pretty much an equal choice
whether you drive through the middle of town or you go on the outer
edge. And if you’re driving a truck and you’re going on through-traffic
you take the truck route.

Well,
now they don’t even have that option anymore, all they have is a
Mercedes-Benz test track, a highly-banked, grade-separated freeway that
routes all the traffic around the city and then you get the inevitable
death of any retail in the middle. You end up with antique shops and
empty buildings. And then you get the big boxes out on the beltway.

These small towns, they don’t need beltways. Give them another option
and they might choose it. If they still want to build a beltway and
they want to help pay for it, fine, but the feds should give them the
kind of options that allow urban real estate development, job
development, walkability, connectivity, all these things. Higher
economic performance, higher environmental performance. Those are all
possible when you create a wide variety of choices, instead of just
going right to grade separation. That’s basically saying, "We only fund
through-traffic — if you want to go a long distance, we’re into
funding it."

The feds don’t look at it in terms of the
economics. Traditionally, there’s three purposes for a road: movement,
economic and social interaction. Those are the three things that
traditionally a thoroughfare in an urban area did for thousands of
years. That’s what it was. And then in the last 60 years it’s all
dumbed down to just one thing — vehicle movement — and the other
stuff doesn’t matter. Well that’s really stupid. The federal government
collects a lot of taxes from hardworking people in the United States,
and they shouldn’t just think that the only purpose of investment in
transportation is through-traffic.

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