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WisDOT official: More budget flexibility needed to relieve congestion

By Amy Karon

The state’s Department of Transportation can improve its existing highway network without spending more money, John Corbin, the agency’s director of traffic operations, said Thursday. But only if the state permits more flexible use of highway improvement money to pay for traffic devices designed to ease congestion and increase safety.

WisDOT’s traffic operations program manages highway work zones and installs and maintains traffic devices such as signals, pavement markers, signs and sensing mechanisms in roads that enable a left-turn signal to activate when a car is waiting.

Such devices have received increased attention nationally as urbanization and population growth feed congestion.

But Corbin, speaking Thursday in Madison at the state’s Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, said Wisconsin’s traffic operations program lacks its own dedicated money and has faced money constraints for a decade.

In 2001, Corbin said, the state legislature passed a biennial budget that expanded the traffic program’s responsibilities while also requiring it to usually use highway maintenance money to pay for them. In essence, he said, you can’t do maintenance work with improvement dollars. And installing new sensors or lights on existing roads counts as maintenance unless it’s being done as part of a bigger highway improvement project.

“This type of severe restriction on highway improvement funds is unique to Wisconsin,” Corbin said.

Corbin said without more flexibility to use other existing transportation money, Wisconsin has two options: provide new, dedicated money to pay for emerging technologies designed to improve highway safety and efficiency, or endure a highway network increasingly prone to congestion and accidents.

The state has about $350 million in assets for traffic operations infrastructure, which translates to about $31 million in annual funding, Corbin said. More than half of that goes to devices such as cameras and LED modules because they tend to wear out — or go through a life cycle, in Corbin’s words — within a decade. But the program relies on its restricted highway improvement money to pay for most such devices.

“We have a lot of vulnerability when it comes to life cycle replacement on the electrical side,” Corbin said.

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