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Zoo Interchange threatens road projects

The U.S. 45 northbound bridge was closed by WisDOT last Friday after excessive damage was found. (File Photo by John Krejci)

The U.S. 45 northbound bridge was closed by WisDOT last Friday after excessive damage was found, leading government officials to play the blame game. (File Photo by John Krejci)

By Sean Ryan

The impending Zoo Interchange reconstruction is leaving officials and gubernatorial candidates wondering where the state will get the money for the job.

Some legislators are searching for ways to raise more money to pay for the project, while others say the interchange should take priority over other road and rail construction work.

“If we don’t do anything on the revenue front, I think no matter what, the Zoo is moving forward, but I think it will have a tremendous impact,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation hired contractors to repair three failing bridges on the interchange and last week closed a bridge because the span cannot support heavy traffic.

Reconstruction options for the interchange include spending $960 million to rebuild it as-is, and spending $2.31 billion to reconfigure the interchange and rebuild it with eight lanes, according to project engineering studies. The final project plan won’t be complete and approved until 2011, and construction will not begin until 2012 or later.

For now, the state should begin studying which projects can be delayed so the transportation budget has enough money for the Zoo Interchange reconstruction, said Shawn Lundie, chief of staff for state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield.

“We don’t have the luxury of choosing between the Zoo and other projects,” he said. “We have to do the Zoo.”

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Everything should be considered for cuts, Lundie said, including delaying portions of the Interstate 94 north-south reconstruction and redirecting money from county highway reconstruction. Kanavas this week sent a letter to the governor’s office requesting an assessment of state road spending to find projects that can be deferred.

The two Republican candidates for governor — Scott Walker and Mark Neumann — said they don’t want the interchange to delay other road projects. But both said they want to know if the state’s federal grants for the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail project can be redirected to roads. The state received $812 million from the federal government for high-speed rail projects.

“If you look at prioritizing dollars being spent,” Neumann said, “we think that roads are more important than that train.”

Walker said he wants to investigate whether the U.S. Congress, which approved the rail grant money in the stimulus package, can redirect Wisconsin’s share to roads.

He said he does not want to pit the needed Zoo Interchange project against other state highway work.

“I don’t want to make mistakes elsewhere that will make future problems,” he said.

Phil Walzak, spokesman for Democrat Tom Barrett’s campaign for governor, said the state must stick to a timetable for completing projects to ensure needed work is not neglected. He said investment is needed for infrastructure, but he did not identify new sources of money.

“Tom is not interested in raising any taxes,” Walzak said, “and he’s not interested in toll roads.”

The state can fortify its transportation budget to handle the interchange project by setting aside sales taxes collected on car-related purchases, said state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale. The plan, which would not increase the sales tax rate, would dedicate any year-over-year increases in tax collections to the transportation budget. Stone said the approach could generate $30 million annually for the debt the state will assume for the Zoo Interchange.

He said he might introduce a bill before the legislative session ends in April that would dedicate the sales tax to roads. Walker and Neumann both support dedicating the tax to transportation.

Thompson said the Zoo Interchange project is large enough to throw off schedules and spending for state road work across Wisconsin. The state needs new money sources, such as increases in gas taxes or vehicle registration fees, to prevent that from happening, he said.

“I don’t think the Zoo would be the culprit if that happens,” Thompson said. “I think the culprit is we aren’t living up to the reality.”

READ A RELATED STORY: Zoo replacement bridge to open Friday

2 comments

  1. Mark Neumann and Scott Walker are both grandstanding to get votes. That rail money was earmarked just for this project, and should Mark Neumann or Scott Walker manage to fool enough people some of the time — namely Election Day — and proceed to botch our Wisconsin high-speed rail project along with its thousands of needed jobs, that $810 million goes right back to Washington to give to some other part of the country, and we get to pay for somebody else’s high-speed rail line, as we’ve had to for decades. Scott Walker and Mark Neumann have to know this, but they’re obviously more interested in gaining statewide power at any cost even if Wisconsin loses four-fifths of a trillion dollars in job-producing federal aid!

    Of the two, Scott Walker’s the greater hypocrite because while he was a member of the Wisconsin Assembly, Walker voted against the budget funding the Zoo Interchange, while Tom Barrett supported road projects including the Zoo Interchange even though that isn’t even in his jurisdiction – it’s out in Milwaukee County, *Scott Walker’s* jurisdiction. And yet Walker blames Barrett for this? Sheesh, what a country.

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