Defining moment. Fork in the road. Make or break. Down to the wire.
All those cliches apply when it comes to AB 919/SB 788, bipartisan legislation that would revive planning for the reconstruction of the East-West freeway in Milwaukee.
As the 2018 legislative session winds down, the Senate and Assembly can throw Governor Scott Walker a lifeline (OK, another cliche) and unwind his stunning decision last year to drop six years and $25 million in planning for the project. None other than Walker initiated the planning in 2011. Based on his written pledge of support in 2016, the federal government gave its official approval.
And then, poof. The governor’s 2017-19 budget included $0 for continued planning and failed to enumerate it as a major highway project. To cap it off, at the Walker Administration’s explicit request, the Federal Highway Administration reluctantly withdrew its approval.
A bipartisan group of Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin legislators want to revisit the issue before adjournment next month. They want the Department of Transportation to reallocate $25 million from within its $6 billion budget. Their objectives are to finish engineering and resurrect federal approval, setting up the much larger debate on transportation finance that will dominate the 2019 legislative session. If they fail, the East-West project goes into the deep freeze. Years from now, when it eventually is revived, planning might have to start from scratch and construction costs could be hundreds of millions higher.
An immediate stumbling block — apart from Walker’s publicly stated reservations about the plan — is concern from outstate legislators. Some worry that the $25 million could come at the expense of projects in their districts.
In truth, however, a defeat of the current effort guarantees a much larger shift of money to Milwaukee’s East-West corridor. That’s because a costly short-term repaving will be needed as early as 2019-21 if reconstruction plans remain stalled. That repaving would be financed primarily by the state’s highway rehabilitation account, a primary source of revenue for out-state road projects. Repaving would extend the freeway’s life a scant number of years. It would mean two years of lane closures, user delays, and more crashes and do absolutely nothing to resolve underlying safety and traffic-handling problems.
Metro Milwaukee motorists will get a first-hand look at freeway repaving in a couple of months. As previously described here, a 4.5-mile stretch of I-894 will get a temporary repaving that will not be complete until 2019. Ninety percent of that $28 million project will be paid for from the statewide rehabilitation account, directly reducing funds available elsewhere. This is the price tag for Walker’s decision to shelve the unavoidable reconstruction of Milwaukee freeways. What an Ambitious Agenda.