1/15/2017, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – The federal government is telling Wisconsin officials they should hold off on plans for major new road projects and instead complete stalled construction they intend to delay further.

“There are so many projects under development, we do not believe all of them can advance on a reasonable schedule based on likely funding scenarios,” the head of the Federal Highway Administration’s Wisconsin office wrote to state officials last month.

That federal official, Michael Davies, told the state that it should complete major projects that are underway instead of beginning new projects and delaying ongoing ones. That puts at risk projects such as the east-west portion of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges in Milwaukee County.

The skepticism from the federal government comes at a time when Republicans who control the Legislature are split on what to do about highways.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and some in his caucus are calling for pumping more money into roads and have not ruled out raising the gas tax. Others are backing GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s plans to delay major projects to prevent an increase in the gas tax or registration fees.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson suggested federal authorities may back off on their stance when Donald Trump is sworn in to replace President Barack Obama this week.

“We are confident that with the incoming administration there will be better efforts to partner with states on a variety of issues, this included,” Evenson said in a statement. “In the meantime, it is not surprising that the Obama administration is trying to force us to spend money taxpayers don’t have and trying to subject us to penalty if we don’t.”

Vos took a different stance.
“Unfortunately, it confirms what we already know,” Vos said of the letter. “We all recognize we have a problem funding our roads and now we need to come up with solutions.”

The federal government provides crucial funding for highways and must approve many projects. In this two-year budget cycle, the state is getting $1.7 billion in federal aid for transportation. That’s about a quarter of the $6.5 billion the state is spending on transportation.

Without more money for roads, Wisconsin can’t keep up with its plans, Davies noted.

Among the Federal Highway Administration’s top concerns is the portion of I-94 south of Milwaukee. That project was to be completed last year, but has been delayed until 2021. Now, Wisconsin officials are considering putting off finishing it until 2028 — 12 years later than originally planned.

Davies, who did not return a call from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote that his federal agency is also concerned about projects that have been designed but not yet started, such as the section of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges and Highway 15 in Outagamie County. The federal government may require the state to come up with new funding plans for such projects before signing off on them, Davies wrote.

Wisconsin officials should consider putting on hold some long-range plans because funding is so tight, Davies wrote. Those projects include the Beltline that runs on the south side of Madison; I-39/90/94 between Madison and Wisconsin Dells; and Highway 100 between Layton Ave. and Silver Spring Drive in Milwaukee County.

For instance, Davies wrote the federal agency does not see the value of advancing the Beltline project for more study.

“If funding is not projected within the foreseeable future, we question whether some of these projects currently in the (environmental) phase should proceed on the current schedules,” he wrote.

He sent his letter Dec. 7 and asked for a meeting with Wisconsin DOT officials by the end of January. That meeting has not yet occurred, said DOT spokeswoman Patty Mayers. She declined to answer any other questions.

Davies sent his letter to Mark Gottlieb, who was transportation secretary at the time. Gottlieb retired this month and David Ross took over as secretary last week.