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WisDOT pressured to pay for county work

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (right) talks with Washington County Board Supervisor Charlene Brady, Germantown Village President Thomas Kempinski (second from left) and Washington County Board Supervisor Daniel Goetz following a Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission advisory committee meeting Friday at the Milwaukee County Downtown Transit Center in Milwaukee. Photo by Dustin Block

Chaos. Anger. Confusion. Stimulus.
Those four words weaved together Friday in a tense committee meeting that pitted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation over $7.5 million in federal money for roads and bridges. Barrett won the showdown, leaving WisDOT to explain how it nearly allowed 19 percent of the $38.7 million set aside for the Milwaukee area to be spent in suburban Washington County.
WisDOT local projects manager Brian Bliesner said mistakes were made in the early planning stages for the rush of stimulus money coming for state road and bridge projects.
“In the chaos … things got out of order,” he said.
The advisory committee for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission agreed, and put the onus on WisDOT to fix the problem by finding a way to pay for Washington County’s projects without taking money away from an area comprising Milwaukee County and portions of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.
Problems arose over $7.5 million in stimulus money the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved for two Washington County highway projects in Germantown and a bridge project in River Hills. While the committee appeared to be paying for the projects with the state’s share of stimulus money, it actually was spending money set aside for the Milwaukee area.
SEWRPC’s advisory committee voted March 23 to consider the Washington County projects with other projects from the Milwaukee area competing for the $38.7 million set aside for the area. But WisDOT said the three projects needed to be approved immediately in order to be bid in May and finished this year.
The SEWRPC advisory committee convened Friday and voted not to pay for the Washington County projects. Barrett led the opposition, but placed the blame squarely on WisDOT’s decision not to pay for the roads and bridge out of the agency’s share of the stimulus money.
But Bliesner said WisDOT would not pay for the Washington County projects out of its stimulus money.
David Nguyen, WisDOT’s liaison to the state Office of Recovery and Reinvestment, said it’s possible WisDOT would pay for the projects, but unlikely there is enough will behind it.
“Anything is possible,” Nguyen said. “If there’s will behind it is another question.”
Nguyen questioned whether it was fair for Barrett to pressure WisDOT to pay for the projects.
Barrett said: “If we tried to do to you what you tried to do to us there would be angry feelings.”
Germantown and River Hills officials at the meeting fought for the projects.
They said the jobs would put people to work immediately, and they offered to guarantee local workers would be hired.
“You are placing the jobs in jeopardy,” said River Hills President Robert Brunner.
The committee initially voted 14-5 against the Washington County projects; after reconsideration, the committee voted unanimously against the projects. Members also agreed to write a letter urging WisDOT to pay for the projects, noting the Legislature had already approved them.
“If you say we can’t do it, you’re telling the Legislature to go pound sand,” Barrett told the WisDOT representatives at the meeting.
Allison Bussler, interim director of public works for Waukesha County, pinpointed the confusion to WisDOT announcing the Washington County projects without first referring them to SEWRPC’s advisory committee for consideration.
“The rapid pace led to mistakes and confusion,” she said. “I get a little defensive when people say it’s the committee’s fault.”
SEWRPC Executive Director Kenneth Yunker agreed the proper procedure wasn’t followed.
“Things got out of order,” he said to the committee. “We learned about the projects the same way you learned about the projects.”

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