The Contrarian

Ending Freeway Project Is Historic Blunder

With huge costs for taxpayers and more accidents for drivers.

By - Nov 6th, 2017 10:36 am
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I-94 Expansion. Rendering from WisDOT.

I-94 Expansion. Rendering from WisDOT.

It’s now official.

In response to a September request from the Walker administration, the Federal Highway Administration has rescinded approval of Milwaukee’s East-West freeway project.

The action caps a roller-coaster year in which Governor Scott Walker has steered the state away from a project he once labeled a high priority. Among other things, it means a much higher taxpayer bill when the inevitable need to rebuild and modernize a critical transportation artery is addressed.

In the meantime — save for Foxconn-inspired work in Racine County — plans to rebuild SE Wisconsin freeways are in complete limbo.

In the arcane world of highway project planning, the federal rescission is a big deal. Major projects such as the East-West freeway can’t proceed without a federal OK. While there remains a narrow window of time in which the action could be reversed, that would require a radical course correction by Governor Walker.

Here’s why it matters:

A delay of several years is a distinct possibility. Every year, taxpayer costs to rebuild will grow by tens of millions.

A $20 million planning effort that Walker initiated in 2011 could unravel and need to be re-started.

The state could spend $50 million for a traffic-snarling, temporary repaving that buys little time. It’s a move the state previously said does not make sense.

Increased congestion and a high accident rate will be the norm on the 3.5-mile choke-point between the modernized Marquette and Zoo Interchanges.

Here’s a chronology of the project since Governor Walker’s 2010 election:

2011: The Transportation Projects Commission, chaired by Governor Walker, approved project planning.

2012-2014: The Wisconsin Department of Transportation worked closely with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to evaluate alternatives as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

2015: WISDOT and FHWA chose a preferred option. Notably, more than half of the proposed budget addressed safety issues that plague the road. Accident rates on the E-W Freeway are two to four times the average for urban freeways.

2016: After FHWA and the WIDOT signed a final EIS, the Governor pledged to include the project in his 2017-2019 budget. Based on that commitment, the FHWA issued its formal approval.

2017: The Governor reversed his position and failed to propose E-W funding in his budget. When FHWA last month asked the state for an alternative financing plan, DOT Secretary Dave Ross responded not with a plan but a request that federal approval be rescinded.

Governor Walker had delivered a warning in late 2016 that his written commitment to the freeway project might have an early expiration date.

A December article in the Ashland Daily Press reported the Governor’s remarks at a local appearance. Describing how more could be spent on rural roads, the Governor said: “Stop spending a billion and a half dollars on Milwaukee area projects. It’s that simple…I’m not using additional money to fund another billion or billion and a half dollars worth of projects in the Milwaukee area.” Once the Zoo Interchange was complete, Walker said “we are not spending another penny down there for the next several years.”

Following the September request that FHWA withdraw E-W approval, the Journal Sentinel asked the Governor’s office about what it called an “about face.” The paper was referred to WISDOT, whose spokesperson said via email that rescinding federal approval “has several benefits at this point, including avoiding litigation expenses and clarifying near-term transportation funding plans.”

In fact, about all that’s clear is that a project launched by the Governor in 2011 now has been postponed indefinitely. As for litigation expenses, the state will delay but not avoid them. Ducking a legal fight now simply signals that the E-W project has been kicked way down the road. After all, why spend money to win a legal battle if there is no commitment to actually capitalize on a victory?

Over the course of the next year transportation policy will be a major issue in Walker’s campaign for a third term. It remains to be seen whether the resulting debate will alter Gov. Walker’s stance on SE Wisconsin freeway projects.

In the meantime, the executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association aptly summarizes the situation. As Craig Thompson told the Journal Sentinel, putting the E-W project on ice “clearly highlights the absence of any coherent plan to rebuild the freeway system in southeast Wisconsin. It will diminish investments already made and make it nearly impossible for business to make informed decisions.”

14 thoughts on “The Contrarian: Ending Freeway Project Is Historic Blunder”

  1. Justin A says:

    Wait, isn’t this what the liberals wanted? Threaten a lawsuit if it proceeds then start to bitch when the project gets cancelled.

  2. Eric Anderson says:

    Right, this is a confusing opinion piece. The struggle against this freeways project by Milwaukee city residents was massive, and we are beyond elated and thrilled that it has been cancelled. It was a project for suburbanites that would increase traffic & pollution and decrease quality of life for residents of Milwaukee. It was also racist. There’s an excellent interview with the lawyer who helped defeat the plan here:
    https://usa.streetsblog.org/2017/10/12/meet-the-lawyer-taking-on-wisconsins-highway-lobby-and-winning/

  3. Tim says:

    I always understood the “liberal” position as just replace the road with minor safety improvements. Don’t spend millions on unnecessary expansion and other DOT pork, use the savings to repair local roads across the state.

    Walker just said he’ll let it crumble and won’t get local roads repaired across the state.

  4. Michael says:

    The main issue is that analyses like this completely fail to take into account the astronomical costs associated with the obliterated tax base in the City of Milwaukee. Unlike building a highway through the hinterland, building one in a city directly destroys thousands of properties and significantly devalues many thousands more. 94 ought to become a surface road at Stadium interchange with traffic fanning out onto the highly redundant, massively oversized grid system that we have in the city. The Champs-Elysees in Paris accommodates a similar number of vehicles, since it’s a surface street it is massively less expensive to maintain, and makes a platform for genuine wealth creation. No reason to me why Milwaukee can’t do the same.

    So I say good riddance. If building highways through downtowns made cities prosperous, then the Midwest would be wealthiest region of America. Instead, these urban highways have been fiscal black hole since the 1950s.

  5. George Mitchell says:

    Many of Milwaukee’s elected political “leadership” was either silent or openly opposed to the project. Its cancellation leaves a deteriorating, congested, and unsafe roadway. Some are content with that outcome.

  6. Scott says:

    This is awful, I drive the 50-year-old EW freeway through the Stadium Interchange everyday, and it’s scary and dangerous. This is the last link in making the trip, between our beautiful and reviving lakefront out to the west, a safe and modern driving experience. Just for the suburbanites? I’m not a suburbanite. This is for all residents of greater Milwaukee! Political parties aside, this is what we NEED, and the longer we wait, the more people will get hurt and killed, and the more expensive it will be for us all. Harley, Miller, Brewers… SPEAK UP again please! We need level-headed people with vision to take over the madness and make the right decision to reverse this.

  7. Tim says:

    The Republicans that control WI government have enough votes to pass anything they want. If they wanted to fund safe & well-maintained roads without increasing the state debt, they could do it tomorrow.

    I suppose the real question is why don’t they?

  8. Dave K says:

    The reality is…the dollars that might have funded the E-W corridor completion will now be diverted to the Foxconn tranportation needs in the southern I-94 corridor. I can’t help but feel some sense of bad juju has fallen upon Western suburbs for long acting as though they are separate from the greater metropolitan area. The southern burbs and Racine County have been far more supportive of a metro approach. Waukesha…perhaps your transportation corridor will be completed when y’all start practicing a sense of fair play within metro planning and decision making. Until then…enjoy the slow downs at Miller Park (a metro-wide public investment that Racine legislators had the good sense to support).

  9. blurondo says:

    “Walker said “we are not spending another penny down there for the next several years.” ‘.
    “…down there…”
    This has been Walker’s credo for many years. He’s used this us against them ploy to turn as much of the rest of the state against Milwaukee any way he can.

  10. JPKMKE says:

    Walker’s comment about not funding another large project in Milwaukee is odd. Was the state not involved in the planning and management of the I-94 project? He makes it sounds as though he doesn’t know where the money is going.

  11. Terry says:

    It was easy for career politician and biggest government moocher in the state Scott Walker and his gaggle of uber creepy republican half-wits to solve the billion dollar DOT budget “shortfall”. Just let the roads collapse and go back to mud. Melissa Sargent had a much much wiser supported by over 60% of the state. It got crickets from the fat, angry, bitter old white men in the GIP. So.much for freedom. All I need to.know is how are all the feudal serfs and low pay wage slaves going to get to their jobs at McDonalds, Walmart and Dollar Tree when all the roads are disintigrating in career politician Walker’s Wississippi??

  12. Patrick Zuchowski says:

    Walker is an idiot and cares not for the people of the state…

  13. Bill Kurtz says:

    I’d like George to comment on something I understand happened in 1995, when about a dozen GOP legislators blocked a gas tax increase Tommy Thompson wanted. At one point, Tommy tried to make a deal with Democrats, that would have guaranteed one cent of the increase would go to support transit, mainly benefiting Milwaukee and Madison bus systems. Then John Norquist (who at the time was considering a run for governor) denounced the gas tax hike as unnecessary, causing Republican legislative leaders to scrap the deal. To my knowledge this has never been written about.

  14. George Mitchell says:

    Bill, During CY95 session I was 110% focused on legislation to expand school choice. Only recently did I even learn that resolution of transportation finance did not come until November of that year. I am unable to provide any insight about the intrigue among the various players.

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