Madison — A leaner Department of Transportation is pushing off work on dozens of road projects over the next six years, but GOP Gov. Scott Walker said Thursday he believed some of those could be put back on track if lawmakers OK at least $150 million in borrowing this year.
Walker’s administration announced last week the state was delaying five major projects, but a list compiled by the DOT shows scores of other, smaller-scale projects are being pushed off for the next six years. That’s because of funding cuts that Walker and GOP lawmakers made this summer, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told legislators in a letter this week.
Some of the 225 projects outlined by the department are segments of larger projects. For instance, widening I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison is listed as 32 separate projects. Nonetheless, the new DOT list means dozens of projects will be delayed in the coming years.
In a stop at Stoughton High School, Walker told reporters the five major projects could be put back on schedule if lawmakers released $150 million in additional bonds and seized on promised savings from the massive Zoo Interchange reconstruction in Milwaukee.
Walker did not address the delays facing the other projects, which have not been formally announced.
“We think there’s money in particular in the Zoo Interchange and then we think there’s a lot of other savings we can squeeze out elsewhere across the state from other projects,” Walker said. “My hope would be…we can get something close to $150 million more (in borrowing). I think that would allow the projects we’ve talked about to go forward in this fiscal year.”
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said the long list of delays shows the need for his committee to issue more bonds for roads. The Zoo Interchange is mostly staying on track, while projects elsewhere in the state are being put off — and that’s not fair, he said.
“If we’re going to do reductions, there needs to be some equality here,” Nygren said. “As someone who represents Up North, it’s kind of bothersome.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) agreed. Lawmakers need to find a long-term fix to road funding, but for now should issue more bonds to prevent delays, he said.
“So much of the money we are generating is going into one project, the Zoo, and the rest of the state is suffering,” he said.
But Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), who sits on the Joint Finance Committee, said more borrowing is not the solution.
“I’m not in favor of it,” he said. “I don’t want to commit future revenue in the general fund that could be going for schools, UW, technical colleges and a lot of other good programs. I think it’s bad policy to use the general fund credit card.”
Marklein said he could back an increase in the gas tax, but acknowledged that’s politically difficult. Highlighting that point, Walker on Thursday again ruled out raising the gas tax increase unless taxes in other areas were cut — a position he staked out in his re-election bid last year.
The DOT rewrites its six-year plan regularly, with a particular eye toward updating it after lawmakers approve the state budget every two years. With cuts to the road budget, the DOT needed to delay projects, Gottlieb told lawmakers.
The additional projects being put off cover everything from simple resurfacing jobs to top-to-bottom reconstructions. They include bridge rehabilitation work on I-43 in Milwaukee County and the resurfacing of a segment of Highway 18 in Waukesha County.
Work has not yet begun on the many of the projects. Their start dates are being delayed for a year or two under DOT plans.
For others, work is underway. That work will continue, but at a slower pace that will delay completion for two years — unless additional bonding is approved.
Last spring, Walker sought to borrow a record $1.3 billion over two years for transportation to avoid raising gas taxes, but his fellow Republicans reduced that to borrowing $500 million initially as part of the state budget approved in July. Lawmakers gave the administration the ability to ask for an extra $350 million in borrowing, which would be released with the approval of the Joint Finance Committee.
Of that, up to $200 million could be released now and $150 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Walker’s comments indicate he will seek most but not all of the bonding that would be available in this fiscal year.
Much of the additional borrowing would be paid back from the state’s general fund, which is made up primarily of income and sales tax receipts. That’s a departure from the usual practice of paying back bonds for highways from the transportation fund, which is made up mostly of collections from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said his caucus opposes paying back bonds for roads using the general fund.
Republicans in recent years have struggled for years with how to fund roads. The Legislative Audit Committee plans to vote next week to authorize a review of the highway-building program.
Meanwhile, Walker and transportation officials hope to capture savings on the Zoo Interchange. “We do this by using new techniques, materials and innovations, value engineering studies, reducing the scope of projects and other things,” department spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said by email.
The five major projects that are being delayed are I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison; Highway 151/Verona Road in Madison; Highway 10/441 in the Fox Valley; Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth; and Highway 15 near New London in Outagamie County.
Delaying four of those major projects would cost the state $160 million or more in inflation over two years, according to a projection released Monday by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and paid for by the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a trade group.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) had said Democrats in her house support finding more money for roads and were willing to discuss raising gas taxes or raising vehicle registration fees but have not endorsed any specific idea.