Focus on Southwest Wisconsin: I-39/90 project backers turn up the heat
Published: September 7, 2010
Tags: Federal Highway Administration, Focus on Southwest Wisconsin, Forward Janesville I-39/90 Coalition, Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund, Interstate 39/90, Traas, Transportation Projects Commission, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Wisconsin Supreme Court, Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association
By Susan Lampert Smith
Special to The Daily Reporter
On bad days, Interstate 39/90 from the Illinois border north to Madison can resemble a snake that swallowed a watermelon.
To the south, in Illinois, the highway is a smooth-flowing six lanes wide. Then, from the state line north to Madison, I-39/90 narrows to four lanes and traffic often clogs.
And the 60,000 vehicles a day that jam through the bottleneck in Rock and Dane counties may seem like a trickle in 20 years, when state Department of Transportation officials expect traffic on the stretch to swell to nearly 90,000 vehicles a day.
To ease traffic congestion, increase commerce and boost safety, the highway must be expanded soon, supporters of the estimated $1.02 billion project argue. A group of Rock County business and civic groups formed the Forward Janesville I-39/90 Coalition to push for the project.
But Wisconsin faces a $2.5 billion deficit in the two-year budget that starts next year. That worsened in mid-July when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the state must return the $200 million it took from the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund to help balance Wisconsinís 2007-09 budget.
“We have to move forward”
Despite the budget crunch, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, said he remains optimistic about lining up support to expand the 45.5 miles of I-39/90 to six lanes and rebuild 11 interchanges.
“We have to move forward. This project is just too important to the state of Wisconsin,” Sheridan said. He said Gov. Jim Doyle and state Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi support the expansion.
WisDOT has completed its environmental impact report on the proposed expansion and forwarded the results to the Federal Highway Administration. Sheridan said project supporters want federal approval soon.
Expansion supporters got a boost this month when Doyle agreed to convene the state Transportation Projects Commission for the first time since he took office in January 2003. The TPC is to meet Sept. 15 to hear project recommendations from WisDOT, and the I-39/90 project is one of eight to be considered. The TPC’s decisions must be confirmed by Doyle’s successor and the Legislature as part of the next state budget.
Window of opportunity
Kevin Traas, executive director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said the state is completing a number of major projects, so some resources for others should be available soon.
“Because the TPC hasn’t met, the next generation of capacity projects doesn’t exist,” he said. “There’s nothing in the pipeline.”
Sheridan said the issue is one of “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
“We are seeing some encouraging signs of recovery,” he said. “Every one of those orange barrels is an encouraging sign because it means people are working at jobs that pay family-supporting wages.”
The I-39/90 Coalition is pitching the project as an economic boost for the road building industry, south-central Wisconsin and beyond.
“This road is a major economic driver for the whole state of Wisconsin,” said Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville. “Every day, this section carries $850 million worth of economic activity.”
An improved I-39/90 makes it easier for tourists to get to Wisconsin Dells, and for industries in Wausau to send their products south, he said.
Singling out safety
In addition to economic benefits, the project would improve safety, according to the coalition.
The coalition’s website, lets visitors roll a cursor over a map of the route to see accounts of major traffic accidents that have occurred there in recent years. Every segment of that stretch is at or above the state average for accidents, Cunningham said.
To Traas, expanding the highway is simply a matter of common sense.
“When you’re reconstructing what’s there, you want it to last for another 50 years,” he said. “You’d be foolish not to add an extra lane to meet future needs because it only adds 11 percent to the project cost.”
Joe Lanane also contributed to this report.