A Wisconsin commission whose purpose, at least in part, is to circumvent politics has green-lighted more than $1.3 billion in new road projects — but not without a little posturing.
The Transportation Projects Commission, convened Tuesday by Gov. Jim Doyle for the first time in nearly eight years, approved four projects recommended to it by the state Department of Transportation.
The department started with eight potential projects but pared its final recommendation to four following cost and environmental studies.
The projects would widen the 45-mile stretch of Interstate 39/90 between Madison and the Illinois border from four lanes to six; widen five miles of U.S. Highway 10/state Highway 441 between Oneida Street and County CB in Winnebago County from four lanes to six; widen Highway 38 from two to four lanes between Oakwood Road in Milwaukee County to County K in Racine County; and widen 11 miles of Highway 15 from two to four lanes between Highway 76 and New London in Outagamie County.
Although there was strong support among lawmakers for the projects, state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, expressed frustration that south-central Wisconsin was the benefactor of the most massive project — the I-39/90 expansion, estimated to cost $715 million — while more heavily driven highways around Milwaukee were left off the table.
“When I look at traffic counts in Milwaukee, the traffic counts there are 50 percent greater than traffic counts at peak on 39,” Grothman said. “It bothers me to see one more project go from four to six lanes while (some Milwaukee roads) stay at four.”
Doyle, who acknowledged he can speak freer than normal during his final weeks in office, said Grothman’s concerns are unfounded.
“This division between Milwaukee and the rest of the state — if you’re sitting in my chair — is not a logical division,” Doyle said. “We should be looking at projects as a matter of statewide importance and making judgments on them.”
The I-39/90 expansion is necessary, WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi said, because of the highway’s high accident rate and its role in bringing tourism north to the state. Highways surrounding Milwaukee will become priorities later, he added.
“Eventually, we’ll get to I-43, but that’s 2020 when we’ll get there,” Busalacchi said. “We acknowledge (Grothman’s concerns) about traffic counts, but there’s just so much we can do right now.”
Grothman was the only member of the 14-person commission to oppose any of the four projects. He voted no on the I-39/90 expansion. The commission unanimously approved the other three projects.
The Transportation Projects Commission, though, does not get the final word on road projects. The four approved expansions will be sent next year to the new governor and state Legislature for final approval.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democratic candidate Tom Barrett on Tuesday told the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association he would expand the commission’s influence, reconvening it more often and using it to bypass lawmakers who would be tempted to “support political pet projects,” according to a release from Barrett’s office.
The four projects approved Tuesday, though, come down to common sense rather than politics, Busalacchi insisted, adding he’s confident they will pass next year regardless of who gets elected in November.
“This is economic progress. These are things we all agree on,” Busalacchi said. “We know these things have got to happen. Infrastructure is very important, no matter who the politicians are.”