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Walker wants I-94 expansion in next budget

Eastbound traffic on Interstate 94 approaches 35th Street on Monday in Milwaukee. Gov. Scott Walker is telling federal officials he plans to add lanes to an east-west running section of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee County. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Eastbound traffic on Interstate 94 approaches 35th Street on Monday in Milwaukee. Gov. Scott Walker is telling federal officials he plans to add lanes to an east-west running section of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee County. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Even as Gov. Scott Walker publicly calls for local roads and maintenance to take priority over mega projects in southeast Wisconsin, he is telling federal officials he plans to add lanes to an east-west running section of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee County.

Walker, in a May 13 letter to the Federal Highway Administration, said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will request money for the I-94 expansion project as part of the state’s 2017-2019 budget.

“I support the advancement of this project,” Walker wrote, “and believe there is a reasonable expectation our (next budget) will be passed with the appropriate level of highway funding needed to advance the state’s highest priority projects.”

The letter comes as a seeming contrast to previous statements from both Walker and WisDOT officials concerning the future of mega projects such as the I-94 expansion. Walker put his name last month to a letter calling on WisDOT to use a coming budget request — due in September — to prioritize local roads and maintenance over big-ticket projects in the southeast portion of the state.

Mark Gottlieb, WisDOT secretary, similarly told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this summer that his budget request would place an emphasis on maintaining the state’s existing roads and bridges.

Lawmakers have been grappling in recent years with finding ways to pay for transportation projects without greatly increasing the state’s debt load.

A memo last week from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that transportation spending in the state’s next budget would fall about $939 million below the current level unless legislators raised more revenue or borrowed more. The finding prompted Walker to double down on his pledge to oppose increases to the state’s gas tax gas or vehicle-registration fees unless policy makers could find a way to cut other taxes by the same amount.

The estimated $850 million expansion of I-94, which would add lanes to both the eastbound and westbound lanes of the interstate running between 16th and 70th streets, would draw on both state and federal money.

A Federal Highway Administration spokeswoman said Walker’s letter was just one step toward getting federal money for the transportation project.

The letter was intended to demonstrate that the project would be able to draw on money from state, local, private and federal sources and pave the way for highway administration officials to sign a Record of Decision for the project.

WisDOT officials pushed for the expansion plans to be included in the state’s current budget. However, the project was one of several that were taken off the table after Republican leaders in the Legislature objected to the $1.3 billion Walker wanted to borrow for transportation spending. Although lawmakers eventually approved $850 million worth of borrowing, it still was not enough to advance the I-94 expansion project.

WisDOT officials have nonetheless moved forward with plans to expand the interstate corridor, albeit at a slower rate than previously expected.

A final environmental-impact statement was released for the project earlier in the year. The project’s final designs, however, were expected in December but have yet to be released.

About Alex Zank, [email protected]

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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