Our Views: Freeway delay disgusting, dangerous
Eight more years. It's hard to fathom that we could endure construction signs, barrels and detours until 2023 before the Interstate 90/39 expansion between Beloit and Madison is complete.
It's sickening that a funding gap in the biennial budget approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker has prompted transportation officials to release new maps pushing completion back two years.
It's hard to recall more disheartening news ever coming out of Madison.
No doubt, economic development officials, businesses and motorists are equally disappointed, discouraged and even disgusted.
Rather than swallow new taxes and fees to shore up transportation funding as proposed by his task force, Walker wanted to convince conservatives nationally of his tight fist in preparation for his now-scrapped presidential campaign. So he proposed borrowing $1.3 billion to keep this and other projects on track. Republican lawmakers, likewise balking at higher taxes, couldn't stomach that much borrowing and cut it by one-third.
Delays would only cost more in the long run as material and labor costs climb. Meanwhile, the revised schedule throws plans of construction companies and employees into chaos.
Every Friday in warm months, bumper-to-bumper traffic heads north. It's like a syringe pumping money into the Wisconsin economy. Those drivers want to reach destinations swiftly but safely. Wisconsin should do everything it can to facilitate that.
Instead, lawmakers approve raising the speed limit by 5 mph but refuse to properly fund roadwork and expedite the expansion. That recipe is ripe for tragedy.
“The need for improvements has never been more obvious,” Dan Cunningham of Forward Janesville told us by email Wednesday. “While the human toll of this delay … is difficult to project, it is safe to say that dozens of accidents could be prevented by completing the project on schedule.”
The expansion would ease congestion, boost ramp safety and place median barriers along 18 miles to prevent crossover crashes.
Motorists recall well the 2008 snowstorm that stranded hundreds on the freeway overnight and the March chemical spill that blocked traffic for 12 hours.
Asks Cunningham: “How many more high-profile public safety incidents do we have to endure before state leaders get serious about upgrading our state's infrastructure?”
The delay is a sucker punch to a regional economy gaining traction after the Great Recession and loss of Janesville's General Motors plant and its suppliers. Estimates are that $800 million in commerce hits the freeway daily. The delay will postpone developments and encourage prospective businesses to build elsewhere. It will reduce customers more years for stores, restaurants and hotels that cater to freeway users. It hurts companies depending more heavily each day on employees who live elsewhere and commute here.
“The timely completion of the I-39/90 expansion project is absolutely vital to our economic development efforts, as companies need assurances that their products will make it to their appointed locations safely and quickly,” Cunningham said.
However, Cunningham holds out hope. The budget included $350 million more in bonding to keep big projects moving forward. The first $200 million was to be released this fiscal year, but the transportation department has not requested it from the Joint Finance Committee. Cunningham says some Senate Republicans have warned the department not to ask for the extra money. Forward Janesville is trying to convince those lawmakers to rethink their stance.
“We have been working on getting this vital route improved for the better part of a decade, and we aren't about to stop now …” Cunningham said. “For a small group of legislators to pass over our state's infrastructure needs in this manner is stunning and unacceptable.”
Good roads cost money. Keeping this project on its previous schedule would send a message that Wisconsin really is, as Walker claims, “open for business.”
Gov. Walker and fellow Republicans, it's time to stand up and do the right thing.