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.