9/14/2016, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – The state would provide more money for local roads and existing highways but delay by at least two years a series of major projects, including the rebuilding of the Zoo Interchange and a section of I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois border, according to a plan from Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.

The 2017-’19 budget proposal from the GOP governor’s Department of Transportation would cut $447.4 million over two years from state highway programs while providing $69.7 million more for maintenance and $65 million more for local governments and their roads.

PDF: Budget proposal summary

Walker and aides said that the plan meets his pledge to close a nearly $1 billion two-year hole in the transportation fund without raising gas taxes.

“This budget provides more funding to local governments for their roads and bridges, keeps borrowing at historically low levels, and maintains our no tax or fee increase pledge,” Walker said in a statement. “This budget proves you don’t have to raise taxes or fees to maintain a safe and strong transportation network.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel received an early look at the plan, which the DOT will submit Thursday and the governor will use as he crafts the budget bill he’ll send to lawmakers in February. Walker will tour the state Thursday to tout the proposal, including two stops at projects that his administration wants to keep on track at a cost of more than $500 million over two years: I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison; and Highway 10/441 in the Fox Valley.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said that the Walker administration plan would forego permanent answers in favor of a “political solution” that would lead to longer delays on ever more expensive projects. Doing maintenance on outdated highways is akin to putting a new roof on a house that has been condemned, he said.

“I’m concerned that his solution does nothing more than kick the can down the road for two years,” Vos said.

The DOT proposal would also authorize $500 million in new borrowing, down from $850 million in debt approved in the current budget. That amount of new bonds is expected to ensure that in the coming years no more than 25 cents out of every dollar in the state transportation fund is used to pay off debt, state officials said.

The fund currently spends about three times as much to pay off existing debt as it did in 1999, a trend that has even some GOP lawmakers questioning whether a tax increase would be more fiscally responsible.

Under the plan, the DOT would spend $6.5 billion over the next budget, down from $6.8 billion in the current one.

The proposal would result in significant delays for some of the state’s major projects:

  • Completing work on the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee would take another two years, extending the work until 2022. The core of the project would be finished by 2020, but work on its north leg would take longer.
  • No funding would be put into the $1.6 billion plan to reconstruct the leg of I-94 south of Milwaukee. That will mean a new set of delays for a project that has already been relegated to the back burner. The project has long been a priority for Vos, whose district is in the area.
  • Work on Highways 18 and 151 on Madison’s south side would be delayed for two more years, with completion pushed off from 2019 to 2021.
  • Highway 15 in the Fox Valley would face a one-year delay, meaning it would not be finished until 2022.
  • Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth would be delayed for three more years. That project is already on hold because of litigation.

Conservatives like Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) immediately praised Walker’s plan for holding the line on taxes.

But Pat Goss, the executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said he was concerned the proposal would harm economic development, particularly in southeastern Wisconsin.

“I think it hurts our ability to compete in the global marketplace,” he said.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has projected a $939 million transportation shortfall for the state over the next two years. To close it, Walker and lawmakers could decrease spending, increase taxes and fees or turn to more borrowing.

The DOT proposal, however, doesn’t provide a full picture of what Walker and lawmakers might do, since it doesn’t take into account money that elected officials might shift to roads from other budget priorities such as education or health care.

All of these options carry an impact for taxpayers.

For instance, the current budget didn’t include enough money for all of the DOT’s plans, so projects around the state were delayed, including the expansion of I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison.