State officials gathered on Monday to celebrate the reaching of a milestone in the massive reconstruction of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange, one of the largest highway projects in state history.
At an event held at the Milwaukee County Zoo, Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials announced the completion of the second of the $1.7 billion project’s central two sections. Work on the Zoo Interchange reconstruction began in 2013 and the first phase was wrapped up in summer 2016.
Work on the project’s first phase was overseen by a joint venture made up of Lunda Construction Co., of Black River Falls; Edgerton Contractors Inc., of Oak Creek; and Michaels Corp., of Brownsville. Walsh Construction, out of Chicago, was the lead contractor on the second phase.
Monday’s announcement came with one big caveat: The project’s final northern leg is stalled after receiving no money in the state’s current budget, and a recent estimate shows its costs are rising. Walker’s political opponents seized on the delay on Monday, accusing the governor’s administration of mismanaging the project and driving up costs for taxpayers even as Tony Evers, Walker’s Democratic opponent this fall, has not released a roads plan of his own.
WisDOT now estimates that completing the Zoo Interchange will cost $232.6 million, which is up from a budget request made in 2017 for $202.2 million, according to a report released in early August. The projected increase consists of $21.6 million worth of contingency costs, $3.1 million worth of design costs and $7.7 million worth of inflation.
Critics of Walker’s administration have long warned that the project would only grow costlier the longer parts of it are put off. WisDOT now expects to have the northern leg completed some time between 2020 and 2022.
Walker pushed back against his critics on Monday.
“This is being completed on-time, on-budget,” he said. “People like Tony Evers are talking about spending more with a gas tax. If they are going to raise the gas tax a dollar a gallon, he needs to tell the voters that.”
Walker also repeated a claim on Monday that he has spent $3 billion more than his predecessor on roads during his time in office. It’s a claim that the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has said is inaccurate since it ignores the effects of inflation and miscounts borrowed money.
But even with the north leg still to be done, the work already completed on the Zoo Interchange has rebuilt a section of highway that carries 350,000 cars a day, a number far greater than what officials had planned to accommodate when the interchange was built in the 1960s. Tim Marshall, assistant administrator for the Federal Highway Administration’s Wisconsin Division, said on Monday that the project was benefiting from about $450 million worth of federal money.
Walker’s announcement on Monday came as Wisconsin Democrats were trying to turn his previous transportation budgets into a weak point they could use to attack him ahead of his bid for re-election in November.
A recent Marquette University Law School poll found that voters see the condition of Wisconsin’s roads as among the most pressing matters facing the state. Twenty-five percent of the voters surveyed put road spending as either their first or second highest concern. The only priorities to get higher ratings were jobs and the economy and schools.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin put out a statement on Monday attacking Walker for diverting road money to projects near Foxconn Technology Group’s massive Mount Pleasant factory. The same criticisms were aired last week by Walker’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, state superintendent of schools Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes, Evers’ running mate, who were then on a campaign tour of the state.
Although the Evers campaign has collected endorsements from several large Wisconsin construction unions, it has not released a road plan of its own, saying only that “all options are on the table.”
“As governor, Walker has neglected our roads and diverted funding away from local road projects to shower Foxconn with corporate handouts,” said Courtney Beyer, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesperson. “His own transportation secretary even criticized Walker for failing to fund infrastructure repair. At the end of the day, Walker can’t run from the fact that he put his own political ambitions over the future of our state.”Follow @natebeck9