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FISH HATCHERY congestion

Road congestion on Fish Hatchery Road. The state DOT says it is changing how it measures congestion.

The state Department of Transportation will no longer measure congestion and travel delays as it has for years in order to align with a federal change, a move some say is unnecessary and reflects an ongoing lack of transparency at the agency. 

The state affirmed that it has retired the delay and reliability metric, which tracks congestion on roads, from its quarterly Mobility Accountability Preservation Safety Service (MAPSS) reports because the federal government has changed how it monitors congestion. Wisconsin's Department of Transportation says it will still measure congestion in some form for reports it sends to the federal government.

Critics say that federal change should not preclude the state from measuring congestion on its own as it has for years and regularly sharing that information with the public. Congestion was not included in the agency's latest MAPSS report from April or July, nor is it considered in the DOT's latest state budget request that was released this month, a departure from past reports and budget requests. 

Earlier this month, a national report found that congestion, along with pavement quality, had worsened statewide. The TRIP report was funded by road building business interests, but relies on state data submitted to the federal government. 

Tracking congestion levels is often the most visible, direct way for drivers to understand how roads are functioning and a key indicator for transportation officials to evaluate what system changes might be needed. Without timely, consistent measurement of it, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, it is hard to hold the DOT accountable.

"The whole MAPSS program is, in very simple terms, to rate DOT's performance. So once they start changing the parameters around that then it becomes difficult to rate their performance," he said. "I suspect partially it's due to the fact that it's not a metric they're going to do well on based on some of their other policies."

Christian Schneider, spokesman for the DOT, said the change has "nothing to do with any of that" but instead has to do with "how the feds are reporting to us."According to the agency's July MAPSS report, which was released last week, the agency said the congestion metric will be replaced with "new measures and targets that align the way state DOTs and Metropolitan Planning Organizations, MPOs, assess performance of Interstate and Non-Interstate National Highway system routes, freight movement on the Interstate system, traffic congestion and on-road mobile source emissions."

Fedderly and others complain that the change in state reporting further reduces transparency at an agency that has not been forthcoming in how it is spending money, prioritizing projects and measuring the condition of the state's roads or bridges.

"Their whole lack of communication is really a problem as I see it," said Fedderly, who works with dozens of county highway officials statewide who build and maintain local roads and bridges. "I think it's a poor approach that this department takes as far as their desire to change policies, some I would argue with, some I wouldn't argue with." 

The DOT's lack of communication with transportation stakeholders and local governments is tantamount to a lack of communication with the state's citizens who fund road improvements with their tax dollars to begin with, Fedderly said. He cited an ongoing frustration in trying to get answers from DOT for counties he works with who have pressing, cost-related questions on local projects the state partially funds.

Fedderly said he has been asking DOT officials for weeks for clarity on several local contracts in the state's local bridge program. The contracts were sent to counties more than a year late and are now delayed further because DOT won't respond to questions on the contracts. 

"I've been doing this for just about 40 years and this is by far unprecedented in my experience," he said. "The department refuses to answer the question and it puts the counties in a difficult spot."

Schneider, the DOT spokesman, said he was not aware of Fedderly's complaint or to whom Fedderly was directing his questions. 

Former DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, who created the MAPSS reports in 2012, called the change "regrettable."

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"It shows a lack of transparency," he said. "I think the department has become less forthcoming with the public and the Legislature." 

Gottlieb, who has been critical of the DOT and Gov. Scott Walker's approach to road funding for months, noted that the state continues to track other elements of transportation system quality, including road pavement conditions. Regardless of a federal change, the state still has the ability to report congestion measures, he said. 

"These are very important things that have a lot to say about the performance of our system and that people have a right to know," Gottlieb said.

Others echoed Gottlieb's concerns. 

“The department’s decision to stop making these measures public are contrary to the recommendations of the 2016 LAB audit of the state’s highest program which called for more transparency and accountability at WISDOT," said Ashwat Narayanan, transportation policy director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which advocates for sustainable, environmentally friendly transportation systems. "The public has a right to access every piece of information that influences how billions of dollars of taxpayer money are being spent.”

"What could be the public benefit of erasing congestion measurement from the most recent report? While there may be new federal reporting standards, I would certainly hope that this would be viewed as a minimum standard and truly being transparent to Wisconsin's traveling public would be the priority," said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, which has advocated for more road funding. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.