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I-94 east-west project would be ATM for Wisconsin

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo is a Republican from New Berlin.

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo is a Republican from New Berlin.

Infrastructure is something that directly affects Wisconsinites from all corners of the state every day.

From its most remote rural regions to the densest neighborhoods of our biggest cities, the entire state relies on efficient infrastructure for its economy and citizens’ quality of life. And more than any other project in the state, the I-94 East-West corridor renovation promises wide-ranging benefits for Wisconsin.

Our infrastructure supports our state’s ATM – Agriculture, Tourism, and Manufacturing – and an investment in the East-West corridor project promises to provide multi-fold economic benefits far into the future.

The east-west reconstruction is not just another local road project: It’s an economic development program for the entire state of Wisconsin. This short 3.5 mile stretch of road carries $23 billion worth of freight annually. That’s crops grown and products manufactured from all over the state, much of it headed to the Port of Milwaukee for export.

Providing infrastructure for the quick movement of goods gives large out-of-state businesses confidence about investing in Wisconsin, knowing that they’ll be able to efficiently ship whatever they produce. The American Transportation Research Institute has rightly named this interchange one of the worst truck bottlenecks in America; it’s a real impediment to future growth. Supporting projects like the east-west reconstruction will help attract the next Foxconn to our state, ensuring that Wisconsin remains an economic powerhouse in the Midwest for years to come.

This project is also essential to promoting tourism in our state. The east-west corridor is a gateway for tourists traveling to northern and western parts of Wisconsin for holidays and vacations. It also allows visitors to come to Milwaukee to see a Brewers or Bucks game, visit the State Fair, enjoy music at Summerfest, or explore the many wonderful restaurants and shops that downtown has to offer. Making sure that this important link remains open, safe, and efficient is indispensable to our state’s tourism industry.

The east-west corridor sees around 160,000 vehicles a day, roughly 30,000 more than the road was intended to handle at maximum capacity when it was designed in the 1950s. Many of its design elements are long-outdated. Its left-side ramps, narrow shoulders and difficult lane changes are all relics that have not aged well. These outmoded features don’t just make for unpleasant drives or increased congestion; they have a tangible and detrimental effect on safety. The crash rate on this stretch is between double and triple the statewide average for urban freeways. The status quo is simply unacceptable.

The east-west reconstruction would alleviate these concerns by rebuilding the freeway and bridges along the corridor, modernizing the highway to incorporate strong safety features and increasing vehicle throughput. It will also eliminate a bottleneck by matching the road’s design to that of the nearby Marquette and Zoo interchanges.

Right now, the east-west reconstruction project is at risk. Preparations had been moving along for a groundbreaking to take place in 2020 or 2021. But the project was unexpectedly cut from the state’s budget in September.

That’s why Senator Alberta Darling and I have introduced AB 919 to keep the project alive. AB 919 wouldn’t pay for the entire reconstruction right now; it would make money available to allow planning work to continue moving forward and to avoid squandering the significant investments we’ve already made. This money comes from savings found in the transportation budget. It’s important to know that these savings are from efficiencies realized and projects coming in under-budget; no money will come from cuts to other ongoing or planned projects elsewhere in the state.

I know that people are tired of frequent road work. Although I share this frustration, delaying action on reconstruction merely postpones the inevitable. Resurfacing the pavement temporarily provides a smoother surface; however, it doesn’t deal with the weakening base that would support the new surface. Installed in 1963, the current underlying base has undergone more than one resurfacing over the years, and was never meant to be used as long as it has been. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation carefully studied this alternative and found that “resurfacing the study area freeway system again would not be cost effective.”

Moreover, any such resurfacing would still require years of lane closures, cost $60 million to $80 million to complete, and would merely delay the need for this project. Not only would it waste the $22 million of work we’ve already done; it would raise the cost of the project by at least $40 million in inflation-related expenses alone, while also putting at risk the hundreds of millions of dollars in matching federal aid we need to pay for the reconstruction.

We’ve done great work on infrastructure in southeast Wisconsin: the Marquette and Zoo Interchanges have been hugely successful projects, reducing congestion and saving lives through improved safety. Continuing to delay the east-west corridor, the artery connecting these two interchanges, would hit the state with a massive opportunity cost.

Wisconsin has done a great job of laying the groundwork for an economic ATM machine; now we need to make sure pay for it in order to benefit from the withdrawals for years to come.

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