Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and I disagree that Wisconsin’s transportation priorities are skewed in favor of state highway expansion at the expense of local road investment. The vast majority of businesses we represent in Rock County and south-central Wisconsin are excited about modernization plans for I-39/90 between Madison and the state line and would not support reductions in the state’s Major Highway Development Program.
Some background: Almost exactly two years ago, we organized the I-39/90 NOW Coalition as part of Forward Janesville’s economic development agenda. We were frustrated by the lack of progress on this vital gateway into our state.
Anyone who has driven this route recently is familiar with its shortcomings. The pavement and bridges along this stretch of the Interstate are substandard. Traffic congestion creates frequent and reliable backups. And many of the interchanges are downright scary and have accident rates much higher than the statewide average for similar roads.
Rather than asking for a handout, the I-39/90 NOW Coalition approached the state for a “hand up.” We asked to help Rock County in attracting businesses and jobs to the region by providing us with adequate transportation connections. We argued that the congestion and accident rates were a threat to this “commerce corridor,” so named because freight experts at the University of Wisconsin estimated it carried $650 million to $800 million in economic activity each and every day – commerce that flows to every corner of Wisconsin. We emphasized that business expansion and relocation officials consistently rank “dependable highway access” as their top consideration when looking at potential development sites.
The efforts of our coalition generated a groundswell of support among communities, businesses and citizens along the corridor. The Transportation Projects Commission recommended approval of this project in the fall of 2010, and it was “enumerated” for construction in last year’s state budget.
Since then, SHINE Medical Technologies has announced plans to bring approximately 125 jobs to Janesville, and recruitment efforts have ramped up to take advantage of the improved access to Beloit’s Gateway Business Park and other industrial sites along the corridor. Our frustration of two years ago has been replaced with optimism about the region’s economic future – even though the interstate improvements are still more than two years away.
Some have characterized highway expansion projects such as I-39/90 as an unaffordable luxury in these times of tight budgets. However, spending on these kinds of projects in the current state budget represents just 11% of total transportation spending.
In terms of jobs and economic development, this is probably the state’s best return on its transportation investment. At least that’s how we feel in Rock County – and why we do not support proposed reductions in the program that is helping us build a brighter economic future.
We support improving the local roads in our community, but not at the expense of delaying needed highway projects.
Dan Cunningham is the vice president of Forward Janesville Inc. and served as chair of the I-39/90 NOW Coalition.