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Design-build in Republican transportation plan (UPDATE)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans scrapped Gov. Tony Evers’ transportation budget Thursday and replaced it with a plan that would pay for road work using a combination of title- and registration-fee increases, an infusion of general tax dollars and new borrowing. The proposal also would allow the design-build delivery system to be tested out and make various other far-reaching changes to transportation policy.

GOP leaders spent most of the day on Thursday in closed meetings trying to iron out an alternative to Evers’ proposal. Their plan would spend an additional $483.7 million on roads and scrap Evers’ proposed increase for heavy-truck registrations and a nearly 10-cent gas tax that recent polling found was unpopular with voters.

Republicans instead would raise title fees by $95 to $164; increase the $75-a-year registration fee most car owners pay to $85; and standardize fees for sport utility vehicles and minivans at $100. The plan also relies on an additional $326 million in borrowing, a figure similar to Evers’ proposal — the lowest amount in decades.

It’s a proposal that those in the construction industry see as a more politically palatable alternative to an increase in the gas tax. Many road-building advocates were uncertain about whether a gas-tax increase was the best way to pump money into the transportation budget and were pleased the committee delivered an increase in road funding in line with Evers’ proposal.

“Like Governor Evers did in his budget proposal, the Legislature recognizes the significant, statewide transportation funding needs as well as the impact of delaying important projects all around the state,” said Pat Goss, executive director of road-funding advocacy group Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature and the Governor on a final budget resolution that also makes progress on implementation of a long-term, sustainable funding solution.”

DESIGN-BUILD

The Republican plan, meanwhile, would allow the design-build delivery system to be tested on road projects, a policy that has concerned some parts of the construction industry. The proposal would require WisDOT to use design-build contractors on six projects of various size through 2025, spending no more than $250 million.

Proponents argue that allowing a contractor to both design and build a road project could save money by catching design flaws early in the delivery process. Wisconsin is one of the few states that doesn’t allow the system. But the proposal, when it had previously surfaced two years ago, drew strong opposition from various corners of the construction industry.

Officials at the Association of Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 each registered their opposition to the plan. And the mostly non-union ABC and Local 139, the largest construction union in the state, are rarely in agreement on policy.

John Schulze, director of legal and government affairs for the ABC, said the pilot program’s inclusion in budget documents is a setback and could ultimately favor large construction companies with in-house design staff over smaller contractors.
Local 139, meanwhile, has not come out in opposition to the proposal this session and declined to comment about it on Friday.

NEW ROAD PROJECTS

The GOP budget contained new projects that weren’t part of Evers’ proposal, including cash for a bridge in Kaukauna, the home district of Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke.

Another earmarked project not included in Evers’ request would expand a stretch of Interstate 41 between Appleton and Green Bay and connect two DePere business parks with the freeway.

The project was a priority of state Sen. Andre Jacque, R-DePere. He said although local leaders have long discussed the expansion, his predecessor, former Republican Sen. Frank Lasee, was “not an advocate” of it. The finance committee set aside $6 million for an environmental study of the project over the next two years.

“It’s something that I’ve put a lot of political capital into,” Jacque said. “It’s a big deal. It’s something that has been a focus for years.”

Two other big highway projects included in Evers’ budget — the reconstruction of Interstate 43 north of Milwaukee, and money to complete the Zoo Interchange — remain part of the GOP transportation plan. Money also remains in the proposed budget for the ongoing reconstruction of I-94 south of Milwaukee to support Foxconn Technology Group’s Racine County factory.

GRAVEL-PIT RULES

The plan includes a surprise proposal that could make it easier to open gravel pits in Wisconsin — a step meant to hold down materials costs for highways.

The proposal would limit local governments’ ability to control the operation or development of quarries. Specifically, it would prohibit local governments from placing conditions on would-be quarry operators before granting a permit to allow a pit to be developed. It would also block local government from requiring pit owners to obtain a new zoning permit and prevent municipalities from regulating blasting at quarries.

GOP lawmakers introduced a similar proposal in 2017, but former Gov. Scott Walker vetoed it.

MORE UNCERTAINTY AHEAD

The plan passed on Thursday is still faced with an uncertain future. It drew a no-vote from one Republican senator on the Joint Finance Committee, and other GOP senators have expressed disdain for the plan’s spending.

Republicans, who have a 19-14 majority in the state Senate, can’t afford to lose more than two votes. Senate Democrats are united against the plan.

“This motion fixes more damn roads than his does,” Republican Rep. Mark Born said, mocking Evers’ catchphrase “fix the damn roads.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald issued a statement saying they plan to introduce reforms designed to ensure tax dollars earmarked for transportation are spent efficiently. They didn’t elaborate.

– The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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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