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GOP lawmakers question $21M in cost overruns on Highway 23 project

Republican lawmakers are raising concerns about likely cost overruns on the planned reconstruction of State Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan Counties.

It’s the latest wrinkle for a project that finally began advancing last spring, some two decades after the state Legislature first authorized plans to add two lanes to Highway 23’s current two lanes.

Six Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in late December questioning the rising cost estimate. They said that completing the project is now expected to cost about $21 million more than WisDOT had predicted in August.  The letter notes that, over the course of a year, the project’s expected cost has gone up nearly 14%, from $150.5 million in August to $171.5 million.

“During the 2019-21 budget process, the Joint Finance Committee voted to make historic investments in the Transportation Fund,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, this funding was not intended as a blank check to the department.”

The letter was signed by GOP senators Devin LeMaheiu, of Oostburg; Howard Marklein, of Spring Green; Alberta Darling, of River Hills; Duey Stroebel, of Cedarburg; Luther Olsen, of Ripon; and Tom Tiffany, of Minocqua. The lawmakers’ complaints arose in large part after WisDOT officials said in a meeting in December that any cost increase for the project was expected to be in “the $15 million range.” The meeting was being held by over the state Transportation Projects Commission, a group that reviews some of the largest highway projects in the state. WisDOT officials then said the Highway 23 project would probably overrun initial cost estimates.

In response, WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson, wrote in his own letter that the Highway 23 expansion was the only project discussed at the meeting in December that’s likely to have cost overruns. Eight other projects, worth $2.9 billion in total, were talked about on the same occasion. Any higher-than-expected cost for Highway 23, he wrote, would most likely be compensated for by savings on other jobs..

He also mentioned that the commission had removed three contemplated road projects from consideration entirely, a decision resulting from WisDOT’s “laser focus” on making sure it’s paying only for the most worthy projects, Thompson wrote.

“(The state biennial budget) did not provide a blank check to the department but provided a significant opportunity for the WisDOT to fix what we have first,” Thompson wrote.

The cost estimate for the Highway 23 project is rising for a number of reasons, according to Thomspon’s letter. For starters, the need to extensively excavate marsh lands and contend with poor soils drove up the figure by $3.2 million. Construction materials have also proved expensive. Bids for concrete, concrete masonry for structures and asphalt, for instance, came in “noticeably” higher than predicted. Finally, real estate prices have been high, adding $6 million to the project’s cost

And the budget for Highway 23 isn’t yet settled. The final estimate won’t come until the release, in February, of a report from the Transportation Projects Commission.

Work meanwhile continues on the expansion. WisDOT expects to complete the project in 2022 — a dozen years after department staff first began planning it.

For years, Highway 23 had been mired in legal battles. In 2015, a judge sided with the Madison-based environmental group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin after it argued WisDOT had used inflated traffic forecasts to justify the planned expansion.

Critics of the delay, meanwhile, argued the highway’s condition was causing a spike in crashes — a contention the environmental group disputed. The roadway saw 42 crashes between 2012 and 2016. In that same period, a single section near Seven Hills Road in Fond du Lac saw three fatal crashes, giving it a fatality rate above the state average.

In October 2018, WisDOT completed its final environmental analysis of the project. The deadline to challenge that analysis passed in March, allowing construction work to begin.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

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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