By Kyle Bailey and Bruce Speight
At a time when the State of Wisconsin is wielding an axe with many public programs and vital transportation services, it appears to be shoveling tax dollars toward four highly questionable highway expansion programs that could cost over $2 billion. The new construction largess is particularly troubling given that these tax dollars will be diverted from improving the state of repair on Wisconsin’s existing roads or transit systems, or from public structures such as schools and public safety in our local communities.
Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion budget deficit. In response, Governor Walker has proposed cuts in most areas of the state budget, including education, health care and state assistance for local cities, towns and counties. State funding for local road repair and transit have also been put on the chopping block. Transit in particular has been put at risk by receiving a 10% across the board cut and by a proposal to stop supporting transit through the state’s transportation fund.
At the same time, Governor Walker has proposed a 13 percent increase in state funding for highway capital projects. This spending on new construction at a time of tight budgets stands out like a sore thumb, especially when considering the poor state of Wisconsin’s existing infrastructure and transit service.
A significant portion of Governor Walker’s Highway Improvement budget would be devoted to four new major highway projects, projected to cost Wisconsin taxpayers between $1.2 and $2.1 billion. This paper examines those four projects and questions whether they are needed at all, much less to be prioritized over other urgent needs. Our analysis finds troubling unanswered questions, outdated data used as justification, and a lack of through review. We found the following:
- The traffic count and crash data used for the I-90 widening project south of Madison is both nearly 10 years old and does not support widening lanes as a mitigation measure. Additionally, WisDOT has inexplicably chosen the most expensive option for construction in every case on this project. Predictions for the cost of this project range from $715 million to $1.5 billion.
- The official internal statement for the $125 million Highway 15 widening project in Outagamie County states that an intersection improvement might be a lower-cost and viable alternative to a major highway constructions project. It also states that without additional spending the Level of Service on the road likely won’t deteriorate until 2040!
- Little justification is provided for the nine-mile, $125 million Highway 38 project through rural Caledonia between Milwaukee and Racine. This four-lane project will parallel the already existing I-94 corridor, less than 4 miles to its west. The only apparent immediate beneficiary is the Caledonia Business Park.
- The supporting documents do not support the case for the $390 million proposal to widen the Tri-County Freeway in Winnebago and Calumet Counties.
WISPIRG recommends that state leaders delay these four projects until further review can determine whether they are needed. We should not waste taxpayer money on projects that have not been thoroughly reviewed and justified, especially when other vital transportation services, such as local road repair and transit, are being cut. Instead, state leaders should restore funding for local transportation assistance and transit in the short term and reform the transportation planning and review process to ensure that transportation expenditures are justified, thoroughly reviewed, and best advance the public interest.
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