Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, is lining up with a coalition pushing for expansion of Interstate 39/90 between Madison and the Illinois border.
But getting the project on the state’s construction calendar may require approval from a commission that hasn’t met for eight years.
“We need jobs,” said Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville, a member of the I-39/90 Coalition urging the highway expansion. “Twenty-five companies have closed in the last couple years, and about 11,000 people are out of work right now in Rock County. We know this project has been studied, but we have no timelines for it.”
In addition to a start date, the coalition wants approval of money, Cunningham said.
“The estimates I’ve heard are anywhere between $715 and $750 million, but that’s still to be figured out in steps two, three, four and beyond,” he said. “The first step is enumeration and getting the state to try to put one foot in front of the other on this.”
Getting the highway expansion scheduled is vital for Rock County in the coming years, Cunningham said, because the project could help attract companies to the area.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is expected to finish an environmental impact statement on the project this year, according to a report WisDOT filed in February with the state’s Transportation Projects Commission. The project is one of eight the commission could consider for financing.
But the TPC has not met since 2002 and must be convened by the governor.
The commission was formed in 1983 to approve highway projects costing more than $5 million. It consists of the governor, 10 lawmakers, three public members and the WisDOT secretary as a nonvoting member.
Representatives from Gov. Jim Doyle’s office did not return repeated calls before deadline to discuss whether the governor would call a commission meeting this year.
Still, Sheridan said, he is talking with Doyle’s office and WisDOT about trying to schedule a TPC meeting this year.
“I’m confident we can get in a position to make this project happen,” Sheridan said. “We’re looking at all our options.”
Sheridan also sent a letter Monday to WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi, urging him to have the department expedite the project.
WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said Tuesday the department received Sheridan’s letter but had not yet responded.
Kevin Traas, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association’s director of transportation policy and finance, said there’s good reason for the TPC to meet this year. According to the WisDOT report, a financing opportunity for major projects opens up in 2015.
“Next year, major projects will get $367 million in base funding as part of the budget,” Traas said. “If we just assume that amount holds steady over the next 10 years, 2015 is the start of a stretch where spending does not exceed the amount of base funding.”
According to state law, the state cannot approve spending on major transportation projects unless work can start within six years, so Traas said if money is available by 2015, some work can start then.
Sheridan said if the TPC does not meet to approve the project, there are other options, including putting it in a future state budget.
“We’re looking to see what we can do,” he said. “My goal is to make sure this is up and running as soon as possible.”
State Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, said he would be surprised if the TPC met this year and said now is not the time to push highway expansion projects.
“We’ve got to concentrate on the projects that have to happen, and do it in a way that takes care of problems that exist,” he said. “We don’t have the money to do things that need to happen right now.”
Stone said roads and highways all over the state need maintenance and the state’s lack of transportation money will shortchange many of those projects. He said if the expansion of I-39/90 moves forward, it should be done at the approval of the TPC.
“Otherwise,” he said, “we’re going to start politicizing the way projects are accomplished.”