Budget compromise would stall most Wisconsin road projects

Madison— Delays would immediately slow road projects statewide and eventually hit all the mega projects planned for southeastern Wisconsin highways except the Zoo Interchange under a budget compromise of $500 million in cuts to road spending and borrowing that is being discussed by GOP lawmakers.

Republicans in the Legislature are talking of cutting road projects by as much as $1.3 billion over the next two years to lower the transportation borrowing sought by Gov. Scott Walker, with most GOP senators seeking between $350 million and $800 million in cuts to the governor’s budget.

A $500 million cut wouldn’t hit the state as hard as the larger ones. In particular it would shield the Milwaukee area by allowing the massive Zoo Interchange reconstruction to continue on schedule, according to an analysis by the Walker administration.

Other areas of Wisconsin would face more immediate impacts, and southeastern Wisconsin would increasingly feel them, as well, if the cuts were left in place after 2017.

The miles of state roads rated “poor and below” would more than double over the next 10 years. Two major projects around Milwaukee would be delayed, with completion of the north-south leg of Interstate-94 from the city to the state line being pushed back by one year to 2022 and final touches on the I-94 east-west stretch being moved back by three years to 2025.

GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) said those impacts could be necessary if the state won’t provide a lasting way to pay for those projects, such as an increase in vehicle registration fees. So Harsdorf, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee, said she wants to see borrowing come down from the $1.3 billion proposed by Walker over the next two years.

“That level of bonding is not sustainable,” Harsdorf said of Walker’s bill, signaling she wanted to see substantial cuts. “I don’t think $300 million (in reductions) is going to get us where we need to go.”

Walker, an all but certain 2016 presidential candidate, has ruled out raising fees or gas taxes to fill the financial hole in the state’s transportation fund. That has worried GOP lawmakers like Harsdorf and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester, who point to the long-term effect of the governor’s proposed borrowing.

The GOP differences over road funding have helped contribute to the stalemate over the state budget, halting votes on the bill in the Joint Finance Committee over the last week.

Walker has argued that his budget is responsible overall, because he nixed borrowing in other areas, such as state buildings, to offset record borrowing for roads, leaving overall state bonding at the lowest level in years. But he said last week he would be willing to sign a budget with funding cuts for roads, even if they went as deep as $1.3 billion over two years.

For now, a smaller cut of closer to $500 million appears more likely, based on questions put to all 19 GOP senators. For instance, last week, Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), the Transportation Committee chairman in his house, said he didn’t support cutting more than a half-billion dollars in road spending from Walker’s bill.

In March, Walker’s state Department of Transportation sent the budget committee an 18-page memo laying out the effects that would have:

■ DOT officials said that, even with those cuts, they would avoid delaying Zoo Interchange work, saying the interchange is the state’s busiest and most critical, serving 350,000 vehicles a day.

Other massive Milwaukee area projects wouldn’t be so lucky. Starting in 2018 the state would need to cut $50 million a year from the largest infrastructure efforts being planned for the area.

■ Over the next two years funding for the state’s major building program would be cut by 36%, leading to delays for most big highway projects around the state if they aren’t finished by 2017.

That would slow affected projects down by about two years. For instance, work on the Highway 10/441 project around Little Lake Butte Des Morts by Appleton would finish in 2021 instead of 2019, and work on Highway 18/151 southwest of Madison would wrap up in 2020 instead of 2018.

■ Through 2020, the cuts would remove 444 miles of road projects, or 12%, from a program that repaves aging highways around the state and also handles some more substantial reconstruction. That would mean 98 fewer miles of road repairs in southeastern Wisconsin.

GOP lawmakers could still pass a higher or lower level of cuts. For instance, Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) has floated a range of $350 million to $500 million.

But Darling’s co-chair on the committee, Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), has noted that cutting $800 million might be more fair since it would require more immediate cuts in southeastern Wisconsin. This region has benefited from costly road work in recent years, such as the ongoing work on the Zoo Interchange, Nygren said.

Road projects are largely paid for with the gas tax, vehicle registration fees and federal aid. Those funding levels have been stagnant as the cost of and demand for projects have risen, which has pushed up borrowing.

This year almost 20 cents of every buck in the state’s road fund will go to paying off highway loans. That share is expected to climb to roughly a quarter on the dollar by 2017, under Walker’s proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) has said that she’s open to the possibility of passing a separate transportation bill that might raise state revenues for roads and receive Democratic votes.

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