1/26/18 – PolitiFact Wisconsin

Given the perpetual orange barrels and accompanying traffic delays on Milwaukee area highways, drivers could be forgiven if they pounded the steering wheel after a recent tweet from Gov. Scott Walker.

“Road projects across the state are staying on track or getting done sooner thanks to the good work of the team at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation,” the governor tweeted Dec. 18, 2017.

Responses from the Twitterverse showed not everyone was in the same lane:

“Apparently the 94/45 interchange isn’t part of the state.”

“#WI: worst roads between the Rockies and Atlantic Ocean”

“When is that zoo interchange supposed to be done again? 2018? 2019? 2020? . . . and counting.”

Let’s give this one a spin.

Walker’s evidence

Walker communications director Tom Evenson noted the governor’s tweet directly followed the announcement that the State Highway 441 project in the Fox Valley will be finishing in 2019, a year ahead of the previous expected date.

“By combining projects on the WIS 441 project into a larger package for construction to bid, WisDOT anticipates more competitive bids, greater contractor efficiencies during construction and estimated saving of $9 million in project costs,” Evenson said in an email.

In addition, Evenson said, in April 2017, the governor announced that the Transportation Department freed up more than $100 million for additional projects to be advanced.

This was a result, he said, of $65 million in savings over the course of the state fiscal year – due to lower gas prices and more competitive bids — and an additional $38 million in available revenues to add to the Transportation Fund’s FY18 opening balance.

Rebecca Kikkert, director of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Office of Public Affairs, pointed PolitiFact Wisconsin to an April 13, 2017, state DOT announcement of the $38 million savings.

“With let savings, WisDOT is able to do additional projects and move scheduled projects ahead advancing them, which enables the completion date for these projects to move ahead and get completed sooner,” Kikkert said in an email.

Putting on the brakes

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a Madison-based group with a primary mission of outreach to the public, media, and decision-makers about the importance of an integrated transportation network, didn’t disagree with the evidence the Walker administration provided.However, Thompson cited a list of delayed projects, with several major ones among them:

  • I-94 North-South between Kenosha and the Mitchell Interchange. Original scheduled completion: 2016. The completion date if the state receives an applied-for $246 million federal grant: 2021. The completion date without the federal grant: 2032. The state is still waiting to hear whether it will receive all, some or none of its request.
  • I-94 East-West. The safety and congestion problems that prompted state transportation officials to plan the reconstruction and widening of I-94 between 16th and 70th streets in Milwaukee will not be dealt with now that the project has been abandoned.
  • I-43 North-South (Silver Spring Drive. to Wis. 60), Glendale to Grafton – Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties. “This project has been put on hold until further notice,” according to an October 2015 announcement on the Wisconsin Department of Transportation website.

I-94 between U.S. Highway 12 and State Highway 65 (St. Croix County). Work on the federally-designated truck route between the Twin Cities and St. Croix County was included in the 2017-’19 budget by lawmakers, but vetoed by Walker.

To be sure, Walker’s team highlighted cases where — once contracts have been issued — work was completed earlier than expected, while Thompson noted delayed by broader funding issues.

That said, Walker’s tweet did not make such a distinction clear. It was a broad claim. And — as many of the Twitter responses indicated — that’s how many people understood it.

Ex-DOT secretary waved caution flag

Then-DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb told state lawmakers at a December 2016 hearing that the conditions of Wisconsin’s highways would worsen if funding trends continue.

Under Walker’s budget at the time, 21 percent of Wisconsin’s highway system was projected to be in poor condition by 2018, he said. By 2027, that number would grow to 42 percent.

Gottlieb had at times called for increasing taxes and fees to pay for highways. Walker has said he won’t raise gas taxes or vehicle fees unless an equivalent cut is made in other taxes.

Gottlieb stepped down less than a month after he told lawmakers Wisconsin’s roads would worsen under Walker’s plans.

In September 2017, Walker signed the two-year, $76 billion budget. It borrows $402 million for transportation infrastructure, far less than included in recent budgets. The plan delays work on Highway 15 in Outagamie County and the north leg of the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee County and puts off the reconstruction of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges.

The reduction in funding for interstates in southeast Wisconsin did a U-turn with the announcement of Foxconn locating in southeast Wisconsin.

The state is pinning its hopes for the expanded freeway and related work on a $246.2 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would pay for about half the remaining cost.

Our rating

In a tweet, Walker said “Road projects across the state are staying on track or getting done sooner thanks to the good work of the team at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.”

A spokesman said Walker was referring to the early completion of the State Highway 441 project. But that was not specified in the tweet, and a wide range of other projects — including major ones — have been delayed.

For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, we rate the claim Mostly False.