Just Fix It Wisconsin

Interstate 90/39 work could stretch into 2024 6/17/2016

6/17/2016, Janesville Gazette, Traffic disruption, temporary detours, lane slimming and overpass construction might be the biggest headaches for drivers on Rock County’s stretch of Interstate 90/39, but at least those woes have an end in sight.

Those road-construction blues have a source of funds to address them.

The state Department of Transportation is well underway on a slew of interchange improvements. By this fall, the agency will cap work and clear the dust on a number of new overpasses being built along the I-90/39 corridor by mid-2018.

The beefed-up infrastructure, about $135 million in work being carried out under the state’s current two-year budget, is groundwork to prepare for the much more massive and expensive part of the I-90/39 project—the actual expansion of the Interstate from four to six lanes between Beloit and Madison, and eight lanes through Janesville.

The lane expansion is the driver in the state’s plans to ease congestion of the 55,000 or more vehicles a day that the DOT says pass through Rock County’s I-90/39 corridor.

But now, the bottleneck that chokes Interstate traffic here might not get fixed until 2024—at least three years after the DOT had originally estimated the I-90/39 expansion would get completed.

That’s according to a state transportation budget overview that Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb gave to a business group in Madison in late May. The Gazette obtained a copy of the overview.

The DOT chief’s latest projection comes after the road funding model written into the current state budget pushed back the I-90/39 project’s completion date by a year, from 2021 to 2022.

Gottlieb’s overview shows the specter of two more years of delays to the gargantuan, $1.1 billion Interstate expansion as well as other major road work statewide. According to the overview, the additional delays would happen if the state passes a “constrained” 2017-19 state budget—one in which road borrowing would be limited to $500 million and there would be no increases in the fuel tax and driver fees.

The overview estimates that under current funding models, the state would have less road revenue available in 2017 through 2019 than it has in the current budget.

Gottlieb recently told statewide media outlets that he will not recommend the state increase the fuel tax or fees to boost revenues. But he has warned that because of projected inflation in construction costs, further delays to major road projects would lead to significant cost increases.

The overview obtained by The Gazette predicted that the state’s current model for funding long-term transportation would guarantee delays to the I-90/39 project, and that if revenues didn’t increase, it would leave 36 percent of all state highways in “poor” condition within 10 years.

The Legislature will begin deliberating the state budget when it is back in session in January.

Steven Theisen, a spokesman at the DOT’s I-90/39 expansion project field office in Edgerton, said the agency is on schedule to complete all I-90/39 work being done in Rock County under the current state budget.

“They’re making really nice progress on these projects that are now underway,” he said.

But Theisen said the DOT won’t rocket ahead on longer-term portions of the Interstate project that would involve tearing up lanes, expanding them, and opening new lanes to traffic until it knows whether the state will have enough money to finish the job.

Theisen said the DOT’s schedule for the I-90/39 project is engineered to account for the usual break in road funding—and the uncertainty about what revenue the DOT can expect—between the state’s current budget and the 2017-19 budget.

Except for a section of lane expansion on the northbound lanes between the Dane-Rock county line and Stoughton in spring 2017, much of the major lane expansion work is not expected to roll out until late 2017 or 2018 or later, according to DOT plans.

That puts a heap of unfinished work, at least 80 percent of the Interstate expansion’s costs, on the rolls of the next state budget and future budgets.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, a Republican from Clinton who is on the legislative budget committee, said at a local transportation summit last month that she and other Republican lawmakers are willing to look into options to forge a long-term model for highway funding, including increasing the fuel tax.

The state fuel tax hasn’t budged in several years.

Still, Loudenbeck believes the state cannot shore up transportation funding with a single revenue source.

Gov. Scott Walker already has shot down the idea of fuel tax and driver fee increases in the next state budget, which he must approve. He has said such a tax increase can’t come without the Legislature cutting other taxes.

He took a similar stance last year as lawmakers hashed over the current state budget.

In an op-ed column Walker penned Thursday for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he cited American Petroleum Institute data that he said show Wisconsin’s gas excise tax is the 10th-highest in the nation.

Between federal and state taxes and fees on gas, Walker wrote, drivers who fuel up in Wisconsin pay 50 cents per gallon in taxes. He believes a fuel tax increase would do more harm than good.

“Jacking up (gasoline) taxes would throw a wet blanket on economic growth,” Walker wrote.

In a recent interview, Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price reflected on the state’s ongoing road funding problems and the specter of more I-90/39 delays.

Price said he believes local officials and state lawmakers recognize I-90/39’s role as a major transportation funnel that feeds the rest of the state, but he’s not sure lawmakers elsewhere in Wisconsin see it that way.

“When you go south of the border to Illinois, you see the tollways improved all the way to the Chicago suburbs. That’s a statement, however the commitment to get that work done was made,” Price said. “Then you hit the state line (on I-90/39), and you’re in Wisconsin, the lanes go from three to two. The road changes, and the congestion starts. That’s a statement too.”

The longer big-ticket projects such as the I-90/39 project hang fire, Price said, the murkier the state’s message becomes.

“The question is raised whether the state of Wisconsin is committed to the investment. If you say, ‘We’re open for business,’ but you further delay completing these highway projects, it’s a mixed message,” Price said. “You don’t get return on an investment if you don’t really make the investment.”