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Zoo Interchange job stuck in neutral

Sean Ryan

State Sen. Jim Sullivan wants to keep the Zoo Interchange on track for a 2012 reconstruction, but can’t unless more money is put into the proposed budget.

Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006 moved up the Zoo Interchange reconstruction start date from 2016 to 2012. But the proposed state budget for 2009-11 includes for planning only $20 million — not enough to prepare for construction by 2012.

Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, said he is fighting just to keep the $20 million for planning in the budget. He said he will look for ways to get enough money to keep the reconstruction project on track once the budget passes the state Assembly and heads to the Senate, but he anticipates an uphill battle.

The Legislature is wrestling with whether to increase gas taxes or create oil-franchise fees just to keep up with the state’s proposed road project list, Sullivan said. He did not outline a specific plan to get money in the budget to advance the interchange reconstruction, but he said the oil fee or increased tax would not be enough to get the project rolling.

“Neither are politically highly desirable,” he said of the gas tax and franchise fees. “However, people need to realize that, if we’re going to fill in these holes and have First (World) and not Third World infrastructure, we are going to have to make a commitment.”

Sullivan said the interchange, built in 1963, is too small and, as a result, is a safety hazard and an economic problem because it creates traffic congestion.

“That’s not a convenience issue,” he said. “That’s a dollars and cents and public service issue.”

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Doyle are committed to rebuilding the Zoo Interchange, but there is not enough money to start the project by the 2012 date, said WisDOT Executive Assistant Christopher Klein. WisDOT does not know when reconstruction will begin because it depends on what money is given to the project in the 2011-13 state budget, Klein said.

“When you look at starting the north-south (Interstate 94) project and the Zoo Interchange, two Mega Projects, at the same time in these budget times,” he said, “we can’t afford to do both at this time.”

The state would have needed to dedicate $195 million to the project in the 2009-11 budget to be able to start the project in 2012 and complete it in 2016, Klein said. The money would be used to acquire properties, relocate utilities and engineer the first leg of the project.

Within the next two years, WisDOT will probably inspect the interchange to gauge its structural integrity, Klein said.

“If we’re not going to do construction by 2012, we’ll need to study the bridges and the interchange itself,” he said. “We’ll need to see how long they can last, and we don’t know that yet.”

Timing of the project is not as important as ensuring it is rebuilt with eight lanes rather than as it is, said Dean Cady Jr., legislative aid for state Rep. Leah Vukmir, the Wauwatosa Republican representing the area around the interchange. He said Vukmir is interested in investigating whether a portion of sale taxes paid in counties around the interchange could be set aside to pay for the reconstruction. However, Cady said, the representative “doesn’t want money dedicated to something that we don’t know what it’s going to build.”

The draft environmental impact statement for the project lists four alternatives for the interchange reconstruction, ranging from nothing to $2.31 billion.

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