Dave Reid
Car Culture

Walker’s Freeway Farce

After blaming Barrett for "delaying" the Zoo Interchange, Walker is now stalling it, while rejecting a gas tax hike to pay for it.

By - Dec 4th, 2012 02:20 pm
Gov. Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker

Two years ago, conservatives had a field day going after Democrat Tom Barrett for allegedly delaying the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange. The issue arose during the 2010 gubernatorial race. The eventual winner, Republican Scott Walker, blamed the delay on the Milwaukee mayor, and a chorus of right-wing bloggers provided gleeful back-up, including Boots and Sabers, Freedom Eden, Badger Blogger, and James Wigderson. Charlie Sykes, working hard for Walker, dubbed it The Barrett Bypass and the Walker campaign grabbed the phrase, launching a website called the Barrett Bypass. In fact, you can still find this claim on the Walker campaign website.

All involved pointed to a letter Mayor Barret had written in June 2005 asking to delay funding for preliminary engineering of the interchange. The damning quote: “Unlike the Marquette Interchange, the Zoo Interchange will stand long enough for us to resolve these issues.”

But Barrett wasn’t actually requesting not to fund rebuilding the interchange. At the time Milwaukee County had not endorsed SEWRPC’s freeway plan and the City of Milwaukee was on record as opposing it.  Barrett was looking for consensus, to “resolves these issues,” on the plan, prior to the state spending millions of dollars.  As Barrett wrote in that same letter, “Let’s get agreement on our transportation priorities, before throwing $38 million at the highway engineers without a plan for what a successful interchange and freeway system will look like.”

Barrett, of course, had no authority over the state project and in reality very little pull with then Gov. Jim Doyle, but it didn’t matter; Walker and company successfully blamed the mayor.

Hence the irony that arose last month when Gov Walker’s WisDOT proposed delaying the project. In response, the Barrett Bypass crew found a new person to blame, the man that Walker appointed, WisDOT Secretary, Mark Gottlieb.  Apparently, his “priorities are wrong.

The budget request from Gottlieb almost offhandedly announces the delay: “In addition, reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee County will be delayed up to two years.” Perhaps inadvertently, Gottlieb goes on to reveal the real problem facing highway infrastructure funding, not just in Wisconsin, but America. “State and federal transportation revenues have not kept pace with these demands,” he notes. So there is not enough tax money in the till, yet Gottlied adds “Consistent with state budget policy goals, this request does not propose an increase in state taxes or fees.” Rather, he proposes to fund “our highest priorities within available revenues.”

See the problem?

This left Gov. Walker quite a dilemma. He was quick to distance himself from WisDOT’s proposal to delay the Zoo Interchange  Apparently, the push back from that trial balloon was a bit too much.

And as quoted in the Journal Sentinel, Walker did his best to blame Doyle “for not doing more to get work started on the Zoo Interchange, the state’s busiest interchange.”  But Walker is missing the bigger picture. It’s true the Doyle administration shifted funds from the transportation fund to the general fund, but that isn’t the long-term structural issue here.  If the Doyle administration is to be criticized, it should be for passing the 2005 Wisconsin Act 85, which ended Wisconsin’s practice of indexing the gasoline tax.  Since April 1, 2006, Wisconsin’s gas tax has been stuck at 32.9 cents a gallon.  Although drivers may have appreciated this minimal relief, the tax freeze is a key contributor to the revenue shortfall Gottlieb describes.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Finance Commission, a bipartisan commission created by Gov. Walker to find ways to fund highway infrastructure, is contemplating a recommendation that the gas tax be increased by five cents and proposing a vehicles-miles-traveled tax. Gilman Halsted, of Wisconsin Public Radio, quotes Mary Hanson, a commission member, saying “We as a nation are going to have to move more to this usage base.” Both of these are valid solutions, but it looks as though Walker will run away from the findings of his own commission.

The governor has already hinting he will oppose a gas tax hike.  And the concept of creating a new tax based on vehicle miles traveled seems far too progressive for this administration to support.

But even if a gas tax increase is somehow pushed through the state legislature, the long-term problem won’t be solved. It isn’t only Wisconsin’s gas tax that hasn’t kept up with inflation, the federal gas tax is in even worse shape. It hasn’t risen since 1993.  It’s so short on funding it has become common for the transportation fund to receive an infusion of tax dollars from the general fund.

Finally, mix in America’s love affair with bigger is better and Madison, we have a problem. Instead of simply rebuilding I-94, WisDOT expanded and reconfigured I-94. It presided over the construction of new tunnels, new lanes, and new bridges.  New ramps were opened while others were closed. Although technically not adding new lanes, the Zoo Interchange project will be built with 18-foot-wide shoulders so that these could be converted to additional lanes in the future. All of this expansion adds up, increasing construction costs on the front end and maintenance costs on the back end.

Will the Walker administration slow expansion of freeways and highways or raise revenue to pay for it?  Neither seems likely to appeal to him, which leaves him with a real problem. Odds are, you can expect more cuts to mass transit and other programs (though even this won’t solve the problem). It’s yet another unfortunate example of America’s unquenchable desire for new concrete combined with an irrational, John Galt-styled opposition to any and all taxes.

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7 thoughts on “Car Culture: Walker’s Freeway Farce”

  1. Dave K. says:

    Dave Reid writes, “Will the Walker administration slow expansion of freeways and highways or raise revenue to pay for it? Neither seems likely to appeal to him, which leaves him with a real problem.” – I disagree. If Walker stays true to his past history, he won’t face the problem. He just won’t address it until after he’s gone on to his next office. It will be up to the next administration to clean up the mess left by his inability to reconcile ideology with reality. Just look at the Milwaukee county park system, transit, etc. for examples. It’s a winning recipe for elections, but it’s bad governance for citizens.

  2. Jeff says:

    Anyone who drives through that interchange on a regular basis knows that it needs to be expanded. Going east or west, drivers are forced to merge from three to two lanes, causing backups and dangerous near-hits all the time. Two lanes of traffic through the state’s busiest interchange? That’s ridiculous and needs to change.

  3. Frank says:

    Need more revenue from the gas tax? Just increase the amount of time people idle at red lights.

  4. The cost of this freeway project seems insanely expensive. The rendering I saw was a 4-level stack, the highest capacity type interchange I know. These are expensive to build, but not as expensive as the Zoo interchange seems to be. A lot of these Wisconsin projects seem excessively costly for what the state is getting if you ask me. I can’t even imagine a stack interchange in Chicago adding up to this much.

    Also, all these freeway expansions in a state that isn’t growing very fast (and in a Milwaukee region that is slow growing as well) seems odd. One would think that highway building would be correlated with growth. Unlike some, I actually do think we need to build more roads, but I wonder about many of the projects I see.

  5. Jeramey Jannene says:


    Happen to know any projects off hand that are similar (that I could research costs at)? The scale of something like the Circle Interchange in Chicago strikes me as a bit apples-to-oranges.

    At a County transportation meeting today it was discussed how part of the project includes a $12 million relocation of green houses.

    I’m in agreement that we could use more roads, just that they be the right ones and in the right locations. Wisconsin seems to have plenty of road infrastructure, and is merely building to induce demand at this point.

  6. Andy says:

    The funding for transportation in Wisconsin isn’t the issue, it’s what we’re spending it on. The republicans odd obsession with road construction is in direct opposition to their spending-cut philosophies. Car driving trends have drasticly slowed in recent years and it’s clear that projections from 10 years ago for continued boom in miles driven will not materialize. Adding the lanes to 94 south of the city to the IL border was a waste, the lanes south of madison are going to be a waste, and so on. Quit all this spending that’s meant to satisfy donors!!

    On the flip side, why are we discussing raising gas taxes and/or creating miles-driven taxes?? Gas taxes hit the poor and lower middle class the worst. Do we like raising taxes on those who can least afford them? These are also the people who have to purchase used vehicles w/ lower values (usually SUV’s and other low MPG cars) which only makes it worse. Plus it is no mere coincidence that the housing bubble burst right after gas prices sky rocketed 400%. It’s because people living on the edge of their means (by choice or not) can least afford spikes in fuel prices.

    Even if there was a compromise and shift to miles driven taxes, you have compensate by eliminating a per-gallon gas tax. One or the other, otherwise you’re just putting the pinch on the people I was just talking about.

    Both parties need to quit viewing everything through their narrow partisan positions and take a look at how they are really affecting the citizens of our state.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Andy No doubt all the expansion is in my mind ridiculous. Especially when considering the national decline in VMT and the shifts in driving habits. As far as the gas tax. I believe and well it is pretty clear it is way too low. Expansion aside it simply hasn’t kept up with inflation both in Wisconsin and nationally.

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