Just Fix It Wisconsin

Other Views: Rebuilding freeways is a need, not a want Craig Thompson 9/21/2016

09/21/2016, Janesville Gazette – Wisconsin’s Interstates are neither decorative nor frivolous. A well-functioning I-94 or I-90 is not akin to getting granite countertops or adding a sun room as some have suggested.

Our parents and grandparents built America’s Interstate system in the 1950s and ’60s. It was built to last 50 years. It accommodated the most efficient goods movement in the world.

Many stretches of this system are now at the end of their useful life and need to be rebuilt. That is an expensive endeavor with which every state is grappling. It can’t all be done at once. But this rebuild does need to be carried out through a sound, understandable and sustainable plan.

In Wisconsin, the Marquette Interchange was the first major step in this rebuild. While expensive, it was completed under budget and ahead of schedule and crashes on that interchange have gone down nearly 50 percent. I-94 from the Illinois border through Kenosha was another step. That project was also expensive but has fueled an explosion in that area highlighted by the 1 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center that employs more than 1,500 full-time workers.

Numerous sections of this more than 65-year-old Interstate system are waiting in the queue to be rebuilt. One of those sections is I-94 in Racine County. This three-lane stretch of outdated Interstate is a doughnut hole between four lanes in Kenosha and Milwaukee. The busiest interchange in the state—the Zoo—still has the north leg to be rebuilt. I-94 in front of Miller Park is sandwiched in between the Marquette and the Zoo interchanges. I-43 North of Milwaukee lingers as well, despite complaints from motorists comparing the drive to riding on a washboard.

In spring 2015, the state Department of Transportation put together a plan called “Mobilize to Modernize” where they proposed a schedule under which the Southeast Freeway System would be rebuilt within 15 years. As they put it, “Get in and get out.” They estimated it would save the taxpayers $4.9 billion in costs related to travel time, maintenance, operations and safety. Ah, a light at the end of the tunnel where we don’t see orange. Wouldn’t that be nice?

We also need to realize that the southeast system, while critical, is but one part of Wisconsin’s transportation systems. We have a network of over 110,000 miles of Interstate, state and local roads in Wisconsin. Over 90 percent of the lane miles are local roads. These local roads comprise the first and last mile that our agriculture products and manufactured goods move over—often before they traverse our Interstates.

Currently, state funding for local transportation is actually less than it was five years ago. Many local governments are on a replacement schedule of over 200 years for roads engineered to last 30 or 40.

The transportation budget Gov. Scott Walker is touting would provide some additional funds for local government, but to do so, it walks away from funding the rebuild of our Interstate system.

Some have argued that this is simply living within our means. It is true that we should separate our wants from our needs. Remodeling your house is a want. Replacing your furnace hopefully is not. Surely, we can’t tell existing and prospective businesses that rebuilding the rest of Wisconsin’s Interstate system is a want. That would be sad.

Come next spring when our state officials are debating the state budget, we need to be able to answer a very basic question when it comes to finding a sustainable funding solution for transportation: If not now, when?

Craig Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin based in Madison.

Note: This item ran in other papers around the state.