Janesville Interstate work to start despite budget impasse

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, July 22, 2017

JANESVILLE—Despite political gridlock over a state budget, local motorists will see work begin late this summer on a major portion of Interstate 90/39 expansion through Janesville.

Local road builder Rock Road Companies this week landed a $54.5 million contact from the state Department of Transportation for a northbound lane expansion for a 5.5-mile stretch of I-90/39 between Highway 14 and Avalon Road in Janesville.

The work is slated to roll out after Labor Day and initially involves peeling up the northbound lanes in preparation for adding new lanes on the northbound side. The project is the Janesville leg of the 45-mile widening of I-90/39 between Madison and the Illinois state line.

The Janesville project would be similar to lane expansion work already occurring on the northbound side of the Interstate this summer, with heavy construction on the northbound side and temporary lane shifts of traffic to the south side.

A DOT project official and a Rock Road vice president this week said the Janesville project was awarded with the idea of the work starting this fall, despite the state's two-year budget remaining locked in an impasse between the state's Republican-led Senate and Assembly.

Steve Theisen, a spokesperson at the DOT's I-90/39 project field office in Edgerton, said Janesville's leg of the Interstate expansion remains set to roll this fall because it's being paid largely by a $40 million federal FASTLANE grant awarded last year.

He said the state is paying for the remainder, about $14 million, out of a pot of “base-level” state funding for major highway projects. That funding kicked in this month as the 2015-17 budget ended and the new biennial budget locked in a stalemate despite several big road projects slated to go to bid in July and August.

In the absence of a state budget, the base-level funding gives DOT project officials about $175 million to divvy up among several major highway projects, the I-90/39 expansion being just one of them, Theisen said.

It's not clear how far that money will go toward major lane expansion work on the Interstate between Highway 11 and Beloit that is slated to go to bid in August. Work there is scheduled to begin later this year.

That work, too, according to DOT project schedules, would be funded out of the 2017-2019 biennial budget, which is still up in the air despite some state lawmakers this week saying the Assembly and Senate could be moving toward a solution.

The current budget deadlock is largely because the Assembly and Senate haven't come to an accord over a roads funding package, and Gov. Scott Walker says he wants a roads budget that includes no increases to taxes or fees.

Assembly Republican leaders have been saying throughout the budget process they don't like the state's reliance on bonding to pay for big ticket road projects, and they're seeking a longer-term solution to boost roads revenue that could include tax or fee increases.

Theisen said despite the stalemate the DOT's Edgerton field office is being directed by the DOT central office to ready for bidding a series of projects for lane expansion from Highway 11 south to Beloit.

Rock Road Vice President Steve Kennedy said he believes there's very little chance the $54 million contract for the Janesville leg could get derailed, regardless of the state budget impasse or the outcome of a state roads spending plan once a budget does get passed.

But Kennedy said regional road builders are uncertain what could happen with upcoming work on the Interstate that's slated to be bid out later this year. He said the lack of a roads spending plan is making road builders leery—especially with major-ticket projects such as the $1.2 billion I-90/39 expansion dangling.

In 2015, the state passed a budget that ended up creating delays of about a year to the I-90/39 expansion project, pushing the project's completion date back to 2022.

Gov. Scott Walker has said in recent months he wants a state budget that protects the I-90/39 expansion from cuts or project delays over the next two years.

“We're hoping that it (the I-90/39 expansion) is going to remain a priority with the governor and the DOT. We're counting on what was said in the past, that it is a priority. You really don't know, though. And whenever there isn't a state funding source, and if there's continued cuts to DOT's budget, it always going to affect the contractors.” Kennedy said.

Right now, Kennedy said, the uncertainty of the state budget is making it harder for road builders to plan work with crews and subcontractors, to bid on other jobs, to ramp up staffing for big projects or to buy new equipment needed for big jobs.

In Kennedy's experience, the state has never awarded a contract for a road project then rescinded it later and delayed the work. He said he's not concerned the state would yank away $54 million in work and delay the Janesville project.

But he said there's concern that some portions of the Interstate project south of Janesville could get bid out later this year but not awarded to a contractor because of a continued budget impasse.

“It makes it hard to have a business plan or to sustain a business plan with this uncertainty in the funding,” Kennedy said. “That's maybe not the state's problem, and I understand that.”

Aside from causing headaches for road builders, there's a logistical issue: The I-90/39 lane expansion has already begun on stretches of the northbound lanes north of Edgerton. Those sections—along with the stretch through Janesville and Beloit—have been scheduled to shift northbound traffic to the south side temporarily.

A halting or delaying of scheduled work could prolong the time the Interstate would be a patchwork of lanes expanded and not expanded.

Theisen said the DOT's I-90/39 project field office is in “heightened discussions” with the DOT's central office because of the budget impasse, but he said the field office has gotten no word there would be delays to the expansion project.

“We're still designing projects to meet the schedule and the program," Theisen said.

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