Just Fix It Wisconsin

George Mitchell: Southeast Wisconsin Freeways – A rough road ahead? 8/18/2016

8/18/2016, Right Wisconsin – The Marquette Interchange project — completed eight years ago — signaled the start of a 30-year plan to rebuild the 287-mile network of Southeast Wisconsin freeways. It is the largest public works project in Wisconsin history.

With only a fraction of the work complete, a transportation fund deficit approaching one billion dollars has put the plan in limbo.

This is a big deal. Twenty percent of all state jobs are located near the SE freeway network, one that has reached the end of its useful life. Rebuilding it is crucial to the state’s economy.

The Thompson Administration undertook initial planning of the overall reconstruction effort. Reflecting bipartisan support, the Doyle Administration finalized those plans. Reconstruction of the Marquette — and current work on the Zoo Interchange — are merely early phases.

Because of the program’s long-term nature, support from a succession of elected officials is needed to keep it on track.

The most important of those officials, Governor Scott Walker, appears ready to impose a moratorium. He recently told a Northern Wisconsin TV station that the state will not “in the foreseeable future [do] any big projects, particularly in the Milwaukee area.” This followed a directive to Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb to “minimize” new freeway projects.

The Governor thus has put rebuilding of the aging freeways at the center of the gas tax debate. The math is clear. Without a gas tax increase, which Walker opposes, funds simply aren’t available to continue the project.

Walker likens his assessment of highway needs to that of a homeowner who would focus on replacing an old roof or repainting a weathered exterior. That reasoning — applied objectively to SE Wisconsin freeways — argues precisely against the delays he now proposes That’s because the freeways have to be rebuilt. Indeed, their reconstruction is, at its core, a maintenance and safety project.

So the only question is when, not whether, reconstruction will occur. If not “in the foreseeable future,” projected costs obviously will be much higher when the inevitable no longer can be stalled.

In the near future, the life of the freeways will be extended by short-term repaving. One observer compares this to “repainting a house that is scheduled to be torn down.” These interim projects will cost hundreds of millions. SE Wisconsin motorists will see omnipresent orange barrels. And later, at a higher cost, they will see them again when actual reconstruction happens. This could extend to the middle of the century.

The first tangible evidence of what the Governor’s position means will be come when Secretary Gottlieb releases his 2017-19 budget proposal next month. While it presumably will finance continuation of the Zoo Interchange, the real question is what it might say about such projects as:

I-43 within Milwaukee and north to Highway 60 in Grafton;

I-94 between the Mitchell Interchange and the Illinois-Wisconsin border;

The “North Leg” of the Zoo Interchange (US 45 north to North Avenue/Burleigh).

I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges.

I-894 between the Mitchell, Hale, and Zoo interchanges.

Governor Walker holds the cards. If he maintains his opposition to a higher gas tax he almost certainly will prevail. Taking the Governor at his word, that means the Zoo Interchange will be finished and there won’t be other SE Wisconsin freeway projects “for the foreseeable future.”

Wisconsin faces a billion dollar transportation deficit because gas tax revenue has been stagnant for a decade while repair and construction costs have steadily grown. The state’s response to the deficits has been historically high levels of debt, a practice started under Governor Doyle and accelerated under Governor Walker. The impact is illustrated by the following from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau:

[F]or five of the last six years the annual growth in debt service has exceeded…the annual growth in gross transportation fund revenues… [D]ebt service payments have consistently been growing faster than transportation fund revenues.

As the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has reported, “the Wisconsin transportation fund [now] devotes a higher share of revenues to debt service than the U.S. government.”

This situation recalls a story Senator Ron Johnson tells about a conversation with President Obama. As Johnson wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

I asked the president…to tell the American people the truth about the depth of our debt and deficits. He replied: “Ron…We have to leave some work for future presidents and future Congresses.”

The question for Wisconsin’s deficit-plagued transportation fund is whether Governor Walker and the Legislature will be satisfied to let their successors tackle the challenge. Their decisions involving SE Wisconsin freeways will offer one clear answer.