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Walker’s plan for roads: Stop big interstate projects, spend more on local roads

Gov. Scott Walker wants to halt big Milwaukee-area road projects if he’s re-elected in November, and spend more on small road work and maintenance.

During a debate with his Democratic challenger on Friday, Walker said he’d support spending more on local road projects at the expense of massive Interstate projects in Milwaukee, like the incomplete Zoo Interchange, then repeated that stance in an interview Monday.

Walker’s comments come just two weeks from election day and reveal a change in his plans for Wisconsin’s often-criticized infrastructure, which has become a prominent topic of debate in the governor’s race.

“Our approach going forward is to give local governments the largest increases they have ever had, maintain our state highways and do it by not doing massive new interchanges in Milwaukee as the state has done over the past decade,” Walker said Friday during the debate with Evers.

Although Evers said the state’s transportation system is “crumbling,” he did not offer any further specifics about how he’d repair Wisconsin roads. Evers has declined throughout his campaign to provide detailed transportation policy proposals, saying only that he’d seek a bipartisan plan in which “everything is on the table.”

Walker’s recent comments are consistent with statements and commitments he’s made recently concerning roads.

Last week, Walker announced at a Wisconsin Towns Association meeting in Stevens Point that he would increase spending on town roads. Although he did not release specifics for that plan, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau says his proposal could increase state spending on town roads by about $53 million, taking it up from $149 million to about $202 million — a 36 percent increase.

Likewise, Walker has called for increasing spending on county roads by about 50 percent, taking it from $111 million in 2018 to $168 million a year.

Walker celebrated the completion this summer of the core phases of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange, even as the last section of the project has yet to have money set aside for it in the state budget.

That lack of money for the Zoo Interchange’s so-called north leg appears to have given inflation enough time to drive up the cost of the job from $202.2 million to $232.6 million, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation report released in early August.

In addition, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is lobbying for a $1 billion project to rebuild I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges, a job Walker backed away from last year.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said it’s “not realistic” to pay for more local road projects simply by putting off large interstate projects. Delays, he said, will ultimately drive up costs.

“It was all built at the same time,” Thompson said. “It’s at the end of it’s useful life. To walk away from the segments in-between diminishes the investments we’ve already made.”

In a town hall-style interview on WISN-AM (1130) Monday, Walker said “we need a break” from big infrastructure projects such as the Zoo Interchange.

“That is done, on time and on budget, just as we said it would be,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.

Walker also repeated  his intention to block spending on large interstate projects. He also said he has a “gripe” with Evers over his intention to reinstate prevailing wages and undo the state’s right-to-work law, policies he said save taxpayers money on road projects.

Walker said large road projects are good for “groups that make big money” on them, and made an apparent reference to an advertising campaign that has attacked him on transportation. The group Safe Transportation Over Politics — backed by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 — has taken out banner ads on airplanes in addition to radio and billboard ads deriding the so-called Scott-holes that they say riddle Wisconsin roads.

“The groups running the banners on the backs of planes make money on massive interchanges in Milwaukee,” Walker said.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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