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Milwaukee mayor seeks state cash for local roads

Sean Ryan
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Milwaukee officials this week amplified their call for the state to spend more money on local roads and less on highway expansion projects.

But pushing for the redirection of state money away from state and interstate highway jobs will be a tough sell for residents who don’t live near the city, said Ryan Murray, chief of staff for Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac.

He said the state’s responsibility to maintain its highways means they should be prioritized when it comes to transportation spending.

“I think it’s difficult to say to a resident of Oshkosh that part of their money is going to repair roads in the city of Milwaukee,” Murray said. “Does the resurfacing of Water Street in Milwaukee benefit the residents of the city of Oshkosh?”

But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the state should divert highway money to municipalities throughout the state, not just Milwaukee.

Barrett, during his state of the city address Wednesday, said the state should forget about spending $21 million to build a new Interstate 94 interchange near Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc, for example, and should instead dedicate the state transportation money to local street projects throughout the state.

He also suggested the state rebuild I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois border without additional lanes, reallocating the $200 million that would save to local governments around the state for road projects.

Barrett said Milwaukee needs state highway money to eliminate its backlog of 214 miles of streets in disrepair.

“We all have streets that need to be repaired,” he said. “The way for us to accelerate it is to have more of the money that goes into widening highways or to elaborate interchanges go into local projects.”

Allison Bussler, chief of staff to Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, said she couldn’t comment on Barrett’s proposal on the Pabst Farms interchange because the state hasn’t announced plans to dedicate money to the project. Waukesha County agreed to spend $1.75 million on the $25 million interchange project if the plan to build a retail mall at Pabst Farms comes to fruition.

Christopher Klein, Wisconsin Department of Transportation executive assistant, said the state has not set aside money for the Oconomowoc interchange. He said Gov. Jim Doyle’s recommended 2009-11 state budget would give $2.2 billion of state transportation money to local governments and $3.3 billion for state highway projects. Klein, who would not comment on Barrett’s proposals, said Wisconsin historically has given roughly 40 percent of state transportation money to local governments and spent 60 percent on state and interstate highway projects.

Barrett said he didn’t have a specific number in mind as to what percentage of the state road money cities should receive.

Milwaukee must turn to the state for money to pay for local roads because it can’t cut spending for other city services to pay for public works, said Alderman Robert Bauman.

“You don’t have to be an expert to observe that we’re falling behind at an accelerating rate,” Bauman said, “and there is no hope of catching up if the city has to rely on the property tax base and wheel tax.

“Infrastructure repair is not going to trump public safety.”

But Murray said state highways, like local roads, need construction work, too. The state shouldn’t give money to local projects to the detriment of highways, he said.

“For Milwaukee to receive a significant amount of funding, which I think is what they’re looking for,” Murray said, “you’d be talking about taking a substantial amount of money out of the transportation fund for state highway projects.”

But state Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, pointed out that cities that are landlocked like Milwaukee can’t rely on new developments to raise tax revenue. He said the state should give more shared revenue or transportation money to landlocked communities than to communities like Oconomowoc, which is generating new property taxes from Pabst Farms.

“It’s a question of priorities,” Bauman said, “and the priority has been expand the interstate, expand the state highways, let the local projects die on the vine.”

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