3/4/2017, WKOW Madison – The part-owner of a major Wisconsin Dells-area attraction said Saturday he’s concerned about what a decision to cancel a study into expanding Interstate 39/90/94 means for attractions in the tourist haven.
The studies, which began in 2014, were designed to consider possible widening of Interstate 39/90/94 from Madison to Portage and Interstate 90/94 from Portage to Wisconsin Dells. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that it would cancel them.
Tom Diehl, who co-owns the popular Lake Delton “Tommy Bartlett” attraction and is the president of the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions, said he worries that increases in traffic will create further jams now that the study has been nixed, potentially keeping tourists away.
“People don’t like stop-and-go and sitting in traffic,” Diehl said. “(They) have options in where they want to vacation, and certainly we don’t want them inconvenienced with their traveling, because they’ll go somewhere else.”
Jim Schenck is the type of tourist Diehl hopes doesn’t get scared away by Interstate traffic congestion. The suburban Chicago man visits the Dells with his family a few times per year.
Schenck said he tries to avoid visiting the Dells during peak periods, but often ends up driving through during heavy traffic jams when he’s on business.
“It’s like sitting in Chicago rush hour traffic. It’s horrible,” Schenck said. “We try to come up during the week to avoid people.”
Schenck said he thinks traffic could get worse near the Dells as the area continues to grow.
“They rely on a lot of tourism from Illinois coming up this way,” Schenck said. “People are going to get sick of sitting in the traffic all the time.”
Diehl said his group is trying to advocate for a comprehensive solution to road funding issues. He said the state needs to be willing to raise revenue and supports a plan to do so, whether it comes through raising the gas tax, adding tolls, or otherwise.
“This is where tough decisions have to be made,” Diehl said.
For their part, WisDOT officials defended their plan to cancel the study.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Dave Ross said continuing it wouldn’t be prudent.
“We did not make this decision hastily nor take it lightly,” the statement read. “Upon review, it was determined that, at this time, planning for reconstruction or expansion outside of the planning horizon would be wasteful.”
The statement goes on to say the money saved would be spent on more pressing matters. It said WisDOT continues to recognize the importance of the I-39/90/94 corridor to Wisconsin’s economy
It said the $3.5 million already spent on the studies wouldn’t go to waste; instead, data collected would go toward efforts to repair interstate bridges over the Wisconsin River.
WisDOT officials said canceling the study will save taxpayers $5 million.
Bipartisan groups of legislators have expressed concern over pulling the study. Reps. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, and Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire released a statement Friday condemning WisDOT’s plan.
“This was an important study that could have a profound impact on our crumbling roads, infrastructure that is essential for our economy,” Considine said.
“Ending this study is yet another example of short-sighted budgeting by Governor (Scott) Walker and the legislative (R)epublicans,” Wachs said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said earlier in the week that the state needs to pour more funds into roads; Assembly Republicans have said a gas tax increase should be on the table to raise revenue.
Walker, a Republican, has stridently opposed raising the gas tax.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported Saturday Fitzgerald also expressed concerns over the interstate project’s cancellation.
A controversial component of the studies was the possibility of a second reliever interstate being routed east of the I-39/90/94 in Dane and Columbia counties.
Diehl said his organization opposed that part of the plan, calling it a “distraction.”
Considine said it would have “(torn) up rich agricultural land in the Portage area.”
WisDOT has yet to announce further plans for the corridor.