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Rough estimate drives deal for bypass project

Sean Ryan
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Waukesha County could risk $2 million planning for a highway bypass on the chance that today’s rough estimate will match the actual project cost in about three years.

The county, the city of Waukesha and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation started planning the highway bypass in the late 1960s. The three sides worked out a deal this year to split the planning costs and the estimated $43.1 million for construction.

But each reserves the right to back out if, after two years of planning, construction costs go beyond estimates.

“It’s impossible to predict where costs will be a couple of years down the road,” said Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson.

If, for example, the bypass must be built over or around a wetland near Pebble Creek, the cost of the project could be more than estimated. If that happens, then the county, the city and WisDOT will return to the bargaining table to decide how to split the extra costs or whether to proceed with the project.

Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas said there are still too many unknowns to predict what will happen if costs go beyond the limit.

“It’s too far off,” he said. “I’m really choosing to hold with the estimate. I’m going to hope with the estimate that we’ve provided enough leeway for the project.”

WisDOT, which agreed to spend $37.5 million for construction, originally asked the city and county to commit to a percentage of the overall project cost, but both governments rejected the idea.

“I think both the city and the county felt there is no way we can commit future city councils or county boards to an unknown percentage,” Nelson said.

The four-lane bypass would be built on the western border of the city of Waukesha and would connect to Highway 59, which curls along the southern end of the city. The bypass would then branch off of 59 onto Merrill Hills Road, which also is Highway TT, before linking to Interstate 94.

Waukesha County is considering spending $2 million on the two-year environmental study for the project.

The study will answer such project cost questions as whether the wetlands at Pebble Creek will require a bridge or a change in right-of-way, said Allison Bussler, Waukesha County interim director of public works.

The environmental study also will determine the project’s final right-of-way, which may affect land-acquisition costs. The city of Waukesha for decades has acquired land near existing roads along the proposed route, but portions of the bypass will be built where no roads exist, Bussler said.

She said it makes sense for Waukesha County to dedicate $2 million for planning because, regardless of the bypass project, the county in 2012 will be faced with the estimated $6.7 million cost of rebuilding Highway TT. The highway would be part of the bypass, she said, so WisDOT would inherit the reconstruction cost of the aging road if the bypass deal holds.

If costs go beyond what’s expected, the three government agencies will reconvene in a few years to try to work out another deal, Nelson said.

“If necessary, it will make sense to revisit it at that time,” he said. “But we hope it won’t be necessary.”

The Waukesha County Board on Tuesday will consider the agreement. Three County Board committees unanimously approved the spending. The city of Waukesha next month will consider dedicating $2 million to the project.

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