As debate over the state’s next transportation budget drags on, industry and business groups have repeatedly warned that failure to find a way to spend more money on roads could put at risk a recently obtained federal approval for a planned expansion of Interstate 94.
But I-94 is not the only project they have to worry about. There’s also a long-planned reconstruction of a stretch of Interstate 43 that could lose key parts of its federal approval if road spending is either flatlined or reduced in the state’s next budget.
Construction officials and business groups have warned for months that failure to include plans to rebuild I-94 between Milwaukee’s Marquette and Zoo interchanges in the state’s 2017-19 budget could cause federal approval to be needed again should the project be taken up at a later date. Little attention, though, has been paid to a proposal to rebuild a section of I-43 running from Silver Spring Drive in Glendale to Wisconsin Highway 60 in Grafton, even though industry officials contend that project is subject to many of the same risks.
Brian DeNeve, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said in an email that the state has spent a little less than $20 million on the project so far. The project is expected to cost between $440 million and $470 million in total, according to estimates from 2013.
Both the I-94 and I-43 expansion projects have received formal approval from the Federal Highway Administration. Officially called a record of decision, the approval essentially acknowledges a project’s plans have passed an environmental review and met other federal requirements, said Doug Hecox, an FHWA spokesman.
Although Gov. Scott Walker has expressed support at least for the I-94 project in the past, neither it nor the I-43 plans appeared in the budget proposal he released in February. Lawmakers have since scrapped that plan. But their continued squabbling over road money still makes both project’s chances of inclusion in the budget slim.
If the needed money is not found, parts – if not all – of the projects’ federal approvals could have to be redone at a later date. Transportation advocates and business groups alike, such as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, have warned that records of decision and similar documents can be expected to sit on the shelf only for so long before they are considered out of date.
Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said he fears that at least parts of the I-43 reconstruction’s federal approval will not be good for much longer. That project’s record of decision came in 2014, nearly two years before the I-94 east-west project.
Although the I-43 project receives less attention than I-94, many see it as being just as important. Pam King, executive director of the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce, said I-43 is too narrow to accommodate the traffic it sees nearly every day.
“A better freeway would certainly facilitate that (commuting),” she said.
DeNeve at WisDOT said he remains optimistic the project will not suffer setbacks.
“We paused design in an adequate spot and our plans are recent enough that we could revive work if given the go ahead,” he said.
Speaking for the FHWA, Hecox said records of decision are seldom, if ever, withdrawn from projects. That said, he acknowledged certain parts of the approvals might have to be redone if significant changes occur over time to the circumstances surrounding a project.
Hecox gave the example of a new neighborhood being built at a project site between the time when the federal government issues a record of decision and when the state is ready to proceed. That, he said, could cause an environmental review to have to be conducted again.
The state’s budget was officially due on July 1. Even though that deadline was missed, spending will continue in the amounts called for in the previous budget until a new deal is reached.
So far, the biggest debate has been over whether the state should rely solely on borrowing or instead raise more revenue to pay for road and bridge work.
Thompson said he hears more from drivers about the poor condition of I-43 than other nearby corridors. One reason so little attention is paid to I-43, he said, is that so many other projects are out there competing for money.
“I think there’s just such a backlog right now, that much of the focus has been on (I-94) north-south and (I-94) east-west,” Thompson said.Follow @alexzank