Just Fix It Wisconsin

Scott Walker wants to green-light east-west I-94 project 7/30/2016

7/30/2016, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – As Gov. Scott Walker talks about cutting Milwaukee highway megaprojects to avoid gas tax hikes, he’s telling federal officials that he’ll green-light another nearly $1 billion job in southeastern Wisconsin.

This month, Walker told a Northwoods television station the state is going to focus more on outstate roads and “not going to do, in the foreseeable future, any big projects, particularly in the Milwaukee area.” He’s made similar commentselsewhere.

But in a May 13 letter, the GOP governor told the Federal Highway Administration that his administration wants to kick off an $850 million project to widen an east-west stretch of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges from six lanes to eight.

“I support the advancement of this project and believe there is a reasonable expectation our 2017-2019 budget will be passed with the appropriate level of highway funding needed to advance the state’s highest priority needs,” Walker wrote to Michael Davies, an administrator at the federal agency.

As with most highway projects, it would be funded jointly by the state and federal governments, which both heavily rely on gas taxes to pay for roads.

The state already has years of work ahead to finish two other megaprojects: the Zoo Interchange connecting I-94 eastbound to I-41 northbound; and the north-south section of I-94 between Milwaukee’s south side and the Illinois border.

On top of that, the state faces a $939 million expected shortfall in the road fund over the next two years. Even if lawmakers closed that gap, some delays of scheduled projects could still occur.

Future years could see even further financial pressure if the state moves forward with the widening of I-94 around Milwaukee and continues the $1.2 billion widening of I-39/90 between Madison and Beloit, which would increase from four lanes to six.

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, said that if all these massive projects proceed, he’s not sure if the state can cancel or delay enough smaller ones to still balance its budget.

“It’s an honest question,” said Nygren, who sees a gas tax increase as one way to help bridge the gap in the transportation fund.

A year away from the signing of the next state budget, Walker is carrying out an impassioned debate with fellow Republicans who control the Legislature about how to balance the shortfall in the road fund.

After the Walker administration signaled in late 2012 that the state might need to raise gas taxes to solve budget challenges, the governor settled on an aggressive no-new-taxes approach. He also opposes hiking vehicle registration fees, saying he would be willing to raise fees or taxes for roads only if there were an equivalent cut in other fees or taxes.

Some conservatives have jumped to Walker’s defense. Eric Bott, director of Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, issued a statement raising the alarm that Assembly Republicans’ ideas could lead to a “dramatic increases in taxes.”

“We are disappointed by Assembly Republican leadership’s calls to increase taxes and fees on Wisconsinites but remain committed to working proactively towards a transportation solution,” his statement said.

So far, Walker hasn’t offered a detailed plan for avoiding a tax increase and still paying the state’s bills, saying the proposal will be out on Sept. 15.

“The governor has been very consistent in saying our top priorities are safety and maintaining our existing network moving forward,” Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in a statement. “If both can be addressed, then we will look at our priority list for additional projects.”

Walker sent his letter telling federal authorities he planned to start the east-west portion of I-94 “because we need the federal government to step up and provide funding,” Evenson’s statement said.

The letter is in stark contrast to Walker’s comments that there would not be “any big projects” in Milwaukee. Evenson noted Walker had told his transportation secretary, Mark Gottlieb, in a June letter that such megaprojects “should be minimized.”

Nygren said he expects the administration to offer a plan this fall that doesn’t rely on new taxes. That will have to happen mostly by canceling or delaying projects since there are only so many other savings to be found, he said.

“If we find $100 million of efficiencies in transportation, I’d be impressed,” Nygren said.

But that amount in efficiencies would be nowhere what’s needed to close the budget gap, thus forcing project delays.

In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Nygren stressed the need for more money for roads, saying he saw raising the gas tax as the best way to do that. But he downplayed that notion the next day, issuing a statement that said, “I do not support tax-and-spend tactics.”

His statement acknowledged he supported finding more money for highways, but also wanted to find cost savings and streamline the Department of Transportation.

Neither side has articulated a detailed plan. Walker hasn’t said what projects he would delay to prevent tax or fee increases. GOP lawmakers have not spelled out which taxes or fees they would be willing to raise — or by how much.

Widening I-94 along the nearly 3.5-mile section between 16th and 70th streets could have been even more expensive than what is currently being requested by Walker. The state flirted with — but then rejected a costly double-deck option for 2,000 feet of the corridor through the cemetery area immediately west of the Stadium Interchange.

The work would be part of the state’s so-called Southeastern Wisconsin Megaprojects program. Currently, the state is spending $414.6 million for that program over the two-year budget, but three out of four of those dollars are coming from borrowed money. Walker sought those loans and the GOP-controlled Legislature grudgingly agreed to them as part of a budget compromise last summer.

Walker has used borrowing to help hold down taxes but some lawmakers from his party like Nygren have argued against relying so heavily on loans, setting up a likely showdown in next spring’s follow-up budget.

Liberals have been even more eager to criticize Walker’s transportation policy, with Madison Mayor Paul Soglin calling it “nonsense” and “gibberish.”

“As we grow in this state, as we add more capacity, as we attempt to have more businesses, if we’re moving more people to and from work, school, recreation, we have to have more of an investment,” Soglin said.