Governor Scott Walker’s decision to scrap the East-West Milwaukee freeway project has implications far beyond that 3.5-mile segment of highway.

To use the governor’s own words, he has shelved “for the foreseeable future” action on the unavoidable need to rebuild southeastern Wisconsin freeways.*  

This likely means the necessary work will extend into the second half of this century. The eventual cost will be billions higher. In the interim hundreds of millions will be spent on short-term repaving — money siphoned away from maintenance of out-state roads.

According to the authoritative Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, about $12 billion would have been needed over the next three decades to rebuild and modernize sixteen different segments of southeastern Wisconsin freeways. That schedule and estimated budget estimate are now kaput.

Projects in limbo, in addition to East-West I-94, include:

  1. I-43 between Howard and Silver Spring.
  2. I-43 between Silver Spring and State Highway 60.
  3. I-894 around the western and southern periphery of Milwaukee.
  4. I-94 from the Zoo Interchange through Waukesha County.

Complicating the picture are dozens of aging bridges that are integral parts of the freeway network. Their reconstruction normally would have been part of the phased freeway rebuilding. Several of those bridges won’t last that long. They’ll need to be rebuilt in patchwork fashion, with higher costs as one result.

When Walker spoke to a citizens group last year in Ashland he explained that his plan for avoiding a gas tax increase relied on delaying “Milwaukee” projects. He now is implementing that strategy. In doing so he has turned his back on a bipartisan consensus dating to the 1990s on the need to rebuild and modernize Eisenhower-era freeways. While he apparently sees this as furthering his 2018 re-election prospects, it’s a strategy that comes with a high long-term cost.

*The sole exception is the Foxconn-inspired commitment to reconstruct I-94 in Racine County. And in that case the $250 million in new debt is a mere 40 per cent of that project’s estimated cost.