Will I-90/39 expansion remain on track?

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, February 26, 2017

JANESVILLE—If all or most of the projects slated in 2017 for the Interstate 90/39 lane expansion make the final cut in the new state budget, the massive mega-project will see its most significant glut of work yet.

According to the latest version of the Department of Transportation's road construction schedule, more than half of the 45-mile stretch of Interstate between Beloit and Madison will be torn up at times as 10 major projects are set to roll out.    

That work, according to plans the DOT showed The Gazette, will include overpass replacements between Janesville and Madison and a 10-mile expansion of the Interstate's northbound lanes starting north of Edgerton.

Thus would begin the long-awaited—or some might say, long-deferred—expansion of I-90/39. The massive $1 billion project aims to widen I-90/39 from four lanes to six from the state line north to Madison—and beef it up to eight lanes through Janesville.

In 2017, that work will include major construction this fall to expand a 12-mile stretch of the north lanes between East Hart Road in Beloit and the Humes Road interchange on Janesville's northeast side.

The DOT says that part of the project will take just over two years, wrapping up in spring 2020.

One caveat: The 12-mile Janesville work would roll out if projects move on a time frame that the DOT has laid out for construction.

The Janesville-Beloit portion of the I-90/39 lane expansion, which totals more than $100 million over the next two years, will be paid for in the next state budget, according to DOT project schedules.

The 2017-19 budget won't be submitted to the governor's desk until later this year—maybe not far ahead of the timeline by which the Janesville leg of work is due to be bid out in July and August. 

The state recently has had a mixed record of keeping the I-90/39 budget on a firm timeline.

In 2015, major road-funding woes and a bitter budget fight between Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature ended with the governor inking a roads funding package that many lawmakers argued was a shortsighted approach to a long-term roads revenue shortage.

Walker's budget prompted the DOT in 2015 to delay the I-90/39 expansion by two years. However, the Legislature that year cut loose escrowed bonds it had raked away from the DOT, and that money helped move the project back toward its original track.

The project won't fully wrap up until 2021 or 2022, according to DOT projections.

The Beloit-Janesville lane expansion is just one lane project that will cause temporary traffic diversions, multiple temporary closures and an untold number of orange construction barrels along the Interstate—but it's a portion of heavy construction that will run right up the gut of Janesville's east side, where traffic bottlenecks under normal conditions rank among the heaviest on I-90/39's Wisconsin corridor.

The 12-mile stretch of road's two-year tear up offers one snapshot of traffic disruption linked to a project that could last at least five more years on a highway that is one of the main funnels into Wisconsin for interstate commerce and tourism traffic.  

Walker said last fall that the I-90/39 expansion is one project he doesn't want to see derailed as the state works on a new budget. That's despite a $1 billion roads funding gap his own proposed state budget seeks to balance—mostly through borrowing and delays to other big road projects in the Milwaukee area.

State lawmakers now will spend much of this spring deciding how the new roads budget could tackle a complex problem: a roads funding model that some state lawmakers say has relied too much on borrowing and is sorely lagging in new revenue sources.

Walker again is calling for $500 million in borrowing in the 2017-19 biennial budget. Still, that's less than half the $1.3 billion he initially proposed in the current roads budget—and the $870 million in bonding he ended up approving.

Some leaders in the state Legislature, including some Republicans, are balking at the governor's plan to continue borrowing to fund a bulk of roads projects. Some say they want the state to examine other options, including a tax or fee increase.

The DOT and some lawmakers in recent months has suggested the state's roads funding model has put highway infrastructure decades in arrears on needed repairs and upgrades across the state.

Walker has signaled he won't budge on his stance against a gas tax or fee increase in proposals that some Republican lawmakers are suggesting would shore up what they say is a long-term revenue problem.

But a scathing legislative fiscal audit of the DOT released in January showed the agency has a track record of bloated spending on projects. The state-ordered audit revealed that over the last decade, the DOT had a total of 19 projects that totaled $1.5 billion—twice the cost of their original estimated price tags.

State Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb abruptly resigned late last year just after a series of DOT reports were released, including a policy review of imposing highway tolls in Wisconsin. His resignation was quiet with little explanation given, but it came just a few weeks before the legislative audit of the DOT's spending was released.

Part of the Janesville-Beloit lane expansion work on I-90/39 slated for this fall is being funded by a $40 million federal FASTLANE grant the DOT applied for and won last year, according to DOT records.

The grant is part of a new federal highways program aimed at boosting major projects on highways that are heavy corridors for commerce and travel.

That funding is in some ways tied to states making steady progress on projects the grants are applied to.

DOT officials, Walker and other lawmakers have said the FASTLANE grant has helped buoy prospects for the I-90/39 expansion project. The funding might help place the project in a protected class for at least the next two years, making it less likely to be tabbed for delays as lawmakers wrangle this spring over the roads budget.

Walker signaled that support last fall in a series of public appearances touting his administration's roads budget. One of the stops was at Newville, where the governor appeared in a parking lot that overlooked heavy bridge construction over the Rock River.

Walker said he considers the I-90/39 expansion among a few road projects that should be untouchable over the next two years as the state plans its upcoming biennial budget.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, in an interview last week said she was encouraged by the fact that projects on the I-90/39 expansion appear to be on track.

Loudenbeck is a member of the legislative Joint Finance Committee, a group that in the past has led shaping of the legislative version of the state budget, which is ultimately submitted to the governor.

That fact—and the fact the DOT already has carried out tens of millions of dollars in sideline work linked to the project, including multiple overpasses rebuilt and widened to support expanded lanes on I-90/39—have made Loudenbeck more optimistic that I-90/39 project could continue to roll out as planned.

“I am absolutely thrilled we're starting the budget process with I-39/90 left on track," she said. “Nothing is certain. But I think we're in a strong position of keeping that project on pace with the FASTLANE grant, and parts of the project are well underway.”

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