11/7/17, InBusiness Blog – For years I have read surveys conducted by national site selection magazines that regularly ask CEOs across the country to rank factors for choosing where to locate, and “access to highways” is consistently the most important or second most important factor. So, I wasn’t surprised to see that the legislative package to land Foxconn included several hundred million dollars of bonding to finally get the 36-mile stretch of I-94 between Milwaukee and Illinois, known as the North-South Corridor, finished.
In my mind, it would have been almost inconceivable for a company to consider building a plant the size of nine Lambeau Fields directly on a stretch of interstate that is in such desperate need of improvement.
However, prior to Foxconn emerging on the scene, the governor had submitted his budget to the legislature with no funding for the I-94 North-South Corridor — again. That angered Van Wanggaard, a Republican senator from Racine who quipped, “It doesn’t make sense.” He also pointed out, “Now this is the third time, so how many times are we going to get pushed back?” It was a fair question. The project was started way back in 2009 only to get stalled in 2011, and it’s been mothballed ever since. This is a project the department says, “corrects the deteriorated condition and obsolete design of the roadway and bridges.”
Luckily for Senator Wanggaard and his constituents, the upside of luring Foxconn to locate in Racine was finally enough momentum to get that long-delayed segment of interstate off the schneid.
Or was it?
Most reporting on the Foxconn legislative package pointed out that the $250 million of state bonding was contingent upon getting additional money from the feds. But, in a press release from the Department of Transportation last week, Wisconsin apparently has told the federal government if we are not successful in securing a $246 million INFRA grant the corridor won’t be completed until 2032. Really, 2032?
Now, if I was a betting man — and I am — I would like Wisconsin’s chances. President Trump participated in the announcement of Foxconn, after all. Stakeholder groups across Wisconsin, including mine, have sent in letters of support to the Federal Highway Administration. But have we really put ourselves in a position where the only way we can rebuild this nearly 60-year-old stretch of interstate — which is obviously hugely important to the brass at Foxconn, not to mention local communities and businesses — is to win a $246 million grant from the federal government?
In the release WisDOT Secretary Dave Ross rightfully points out, “The I-94 North-South Corridor plays a key role in the local and regional economy of southeast Wisconsin. With new businesses investing in this region such as Foxconn, Amazon, Uline, and Northwestern Mutual, WisDOT is looking to ensure that the transportation of goods and passengers throughout this region meets business and individual needs.”
And the only way to ensure that is with a grant from the federal government? Wisconsin isn’t able to make something this important happen on its own?
For those who have argued that we don’t have a transportation revenue problem, this latest development may cause them to reconsider.
If my Jimmy the Greek bookmaking proves to be accurate and the feds come through and save the day that will be a huge relief when it comes to Foxconn. But if we don’t have enough state resources to finish I-94 North-South until 2032, when are we going to be able to finish the North Leg of the Zoo, or the 3.5 mile stretch of I-94 in front of Miller Park known as the I-94 East-West Corridor, or …?
Back in December 2016, Governor Walker’s previous WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb was asked that question. Meaning, based on the level of funding in the budget the governor was proposing, what would be the schedule to complete the rebuild the North-South and five other Southeast Wisconsin interstate projects? His answer: 70 years.
Now that a state budget has, in fact, been passed and there is a new leadership team at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, we should probably get an update to that projection. My gut tells me that a budget that reduced state highway funding by $250 million probably didn’t significantly improve the situation.