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Transportation committee approves roadwork, environmental studies (UPDATE)

The Transportation Projects Commission on Wednesday signed off on WisDOT's’ request for a project to ease congestion along Madison's Beltline. (File photo)

By Adam Wise

State Sen. Jim Holperin insisted Wednesday his yes vote for a $150 million highway expansion would be his last until the state figured out how to free up more money for local road aid.

“At the same time we’re putting all this money into big, new urban projects, maintenance money and transportation assistance locally is being cut,” said Holperin, D-Conover, and a member of the Transportation Projects Commission. “In the current budget, towns were frozen, while cities, villages and counties were cut 9 to 15 percent, and I just think that’s the wrong priority for the transportation fund.”

Still, Holperin’s vote helped the TPC approve the state Department of Transportation’s request to expand and rebuild portions of Verona Road and U.S. Highway 151 in Madison and Fitchburg (see map below). The estimated 4.5-mile project is expected to start in late 2013 and reach completion in 2020, WisDOT Project Manager Mark Vesperman said.

The TPC last met to approve projects under former Gov. Jim Doyle in October 2010, when it freed up $1.3 billion for four projects. Before that, the TPC last met in 2002.

The TPC is made up of lawmakers, Gov. Scott Walker, WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb and three citizen members. The commission focuses on projects valued at $30 million that meet certain criteria and all road projects valued at $75 million or more.

But the focus for the state should be on developing major highways and local roads, said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

“Our point is a good highway system without a network of local connecting roads doesn’t do us any good,” he said. “We are clearly shorting funding for the connecting roads and streets at the expense of expanding major highways.

“The road builders were the biggest winners in this last budget.”

Kevin Traas, transportation policy and finance director for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, which represents road builders, said the state needed more money for local roads, but skimping on major highway projects was not the right solution.

“The TPC process was basically stopped for eight years, and there are congestion needs all over the state,” he said. “Four out of the six projects DOT put forth for study are on the interstate and that is our highest priority system.”

The TPC on Wednesday approved six major project proposals, five of which all or partially are in Milwaukee or Dane counties, for environmental review. After the reviews are complete, the projects will be eligible for full approval from the commission.

Major highways carry 60 percent of all traffic in the state, Gottlieb told TPC commissioners Wednesday. Because of that, he said, the 12,000-mile state highway system should remain a high priority even though it represents only 10 percent of the total miles in the state.

WisDOT officials survey the entire state when identifying the transportation system’s greatest construction needs, said Mark Wolfgram, WisDOT administrator for the Division of Transportation Investment Management. Where those needs are often is determined by the state’s busiest roadways near the largest cities.

But the state also is acknowledging the need to spend on local roads. In the 2011-13 state budget, Gov. Scott Walker created the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, whose members are tasked with examining issues such as money for highways, local roads and debt service. The commission is required to submit its recommendations to the Legislature by March 1, 2013, before the next biennial budget is approved.

Until then, Holperin said, the state should hold off on spending any more money on major highway projects.

“Guys like me aren’t going to be voting for these projects,” he said. “I’m kind of crossing my fingers and putting some trust into members of that committee that they’ll come up with some good solutions.”

(Map courtesy of WisDOT)

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