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Scott Walker’s Own Party Rejects His Milwaukee Highway Boondoggle

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee decided to kill funding for I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: ## via WUWM##
Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee wants to kill funding for the I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: WISDOT via WUWM

Governor Scott Walker might be too busy campaigning for president to care, but the Wisconsin legislature handed him a rebuke last week, rejecting his plans for debt-fueled highway expansion.

The Republican-controlled legislature’s Joint Finance Committee trimmed about 35 percent off Walker’s proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing for highways. If approved by the Assembly and Senate -- a big if -- the committee's budget proposal could spell the end for Walker's plans to widen a section of I-94 in Milwaukee.

The finance committee also ordered an audit of the state DOT’s spending. Advocates from WISPIRG, Sierra Club, and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin want state officials to hold off on beginning construction on any new highway expansion projects until the audit is completed.

“We just can’t afford to keep repeating the mistakes that got us into this year’s budget mess,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a statement. “For years, we’ve wasted billions of dollars on highway expansions based on inflated traffic forecasts, and our existing infrastructure has been left to crumble as a result. This audit brings unprecedented and much-needed scrutiny to WisDOT’s highway expansion plans and the methods used to justify billion-dollar projects.”

The committee picked one highway project to axe: the $850 million expansion of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges, where traffic has actually been declining. The state had previously decided in February to scrap plans to double-deck that segment, opting for a different expansion method.

Other projects, including the Madison area’s Verona Road-Highway 18/151 project and the widening of Interstate 39/90 from the Beltline to the Illinois state line, could be delayed.

The committee’s four Democrats all voted against the GOP plan, saying they need to come up with a way to raise revenue, not just cut spending. But this is the right spending to cut. A 2013 report by WISPIRG and the Frontier Group [PDF] shows the state has been on a highway expansion bonanza to the detriment of basic maintenance. In May, a Federal Court denied the state funding to expand Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth because WisDOT had used inaccurate traffic projections to justify the $146 million project.

The committee's budget still calls for $850 million of borrowing for transportation, $500 million of which is earmarked for highway spending, and the spending plan does have a few other sour notes.

One is the repeal of Wisconsin’s complete streets policy. Lawmakers kept federal language insisting on “due consideration” for cyclists and pedestrians but also inserted a provision requiring the state to get authorization from local governments before installing any bike or pedestrian project, giving the state DOT “an additional hoop” to jump through, according to the Wisconsin Bike Federation. The finance committee's proposal also preserves Walker’s elimination of all state support for the Transportation Alternatives Program.

On the other hand, the Bike Federation beat back a proposed bike tax and got two-thirds of trail funds that Walker wanted to cut restored.

The committee's budget is by no means a done deal, however. The Assembly and Senate still need to approve it, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he doesn't have the votes to pass it.

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