Republican lawmakers announced legislation on Thursday meant to put a long-planned expansion of an east-west running section of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee back on track after it was recently yanked from federal plans.
Republican Reps. Joe Sanfelippo, New Berlin; Dale Kooyenga, Brookfield; and Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, River Hills; called for restarting the state’s plans to add a fourth lane to each side of a 3.5-mile stretch of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges. The project had been put on hold indefinitely after no money was put toward it in the state budget lawmakers passed last year.
The lawmakers’ proposal would also require WisDOT Secretary Dave Ross to ask the Federal Highway Administration to agree once again to allow the I-94 expansion to move forward. The federal government rescinded its official “record of decision” for the project last fall after learning the work wasn’t likely to take place in the near future.
The federal government’s formal “record of decision” authorizing the I-94 expansion was the product of extensive environmental reviews and similar work. The lawmakers who spoke on Thursday estimated $20 million had already been spent both on getting the federal record of decision and on preliminary designs and engineering.
Sanfelippo said it’s his understanding that state officials can have the record of decision reissued simply by asking for it and then showing federal officials they have a plan to keep the project moving forward. He and his fellow lawmakers said that if their proposal is approved, work on the I-94 expansion will begin in 2021.
Support of the lawmakers’ proposal came on Thursday from various business groups. Tracy Johnson, president and chief executive of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, said companies looking to set up shop in the Milwaukee area place a premium on having a reliable transportation network.
“These business owners require consistency and reliability,” she said on Thursday. “The exercise of moving forward on this vitally important I-94 project then pulling back as was done in the last budget cycle shows uncertainty, and we need to rebuild that certainty for these people who are looking to relocate in our region.”
The proposal is sure to meet some resistance, though. Before the proposed expansion was yanked from federal plans, several nonprofit groups had filed a lawsuit over it, contending it would harm the environment and benefit certain groups of people more than others.
Peter Skopec, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, one of the organizations that are against the expansion, said he and others will continue to call on WisDOT officials to “go back to the drawing board.” Rather than support an expansion, WISPIRG has put forward a plan that calls for making repairs along I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges and putting more money toward public transportation.
The lawmakers who put forward the I-94 plan on Thursday also said their legislation would give the Wisconsin Department of Transportation until the end of June 2019 to find $25 million worth of savings that could be put toward the I-94 expansion. Sanfelippo said WisDOT officials would have a lot of leeway in trying to come up with the money. He said he and his colleagues intentionally did not point to any specific program or practice that should be eliminated.
“We wanted to be very careful with the bill not to tell them where they have to get the money from,” he said. “The bill just says throughout the whole course of all the efficiencies that you are doing, you can earmark 25 million of (those) dollars to go into this project.”
Sanfelippo said he is confident WisDOT can find the money. Both he and Darling noted that a state audit from 2017 had found that the department had underestimated the cost of ongoing projects by more than $3 billion. The audit, they said, suggested that WisDOT still has plenty of room to improve its spending practices.
Meanwhile, the three lawmakers’ proposal bill would make it clear that even if the I-94 east-west expansion were to be re-started, a separate expansion of the north-south running stretch of the interstate in Racine County would take priority.
That project, which also entails the addition of travel lanes, has taken on added urgency ever since the Taiwanese company Foxconn Technology Group announced plans to build a $10 billion factory in Mount Pleasant. State officials now expect to have that work complete by 2021, more than a decade ahead of the date set in previous schedules.
To do that, they have asked the federal government to give the state a $246 million grant. State lawmakers have said they are confident they will be able to secure the money. But should they not, the legislation announced Thursday would direct WisDOT to put its $25 million in savings toward the north-south expansion, rather than the east-west.
WisDOT officials plan to travel to Washington, D.C. next week to press home their case for the federal grant.Follow @alexzank