State transportation secretary: Budget shortfall could delay I-90/39 project
JANESVILLE—Wisconsin's top transportation official said it's “very plausible” the expansion of Interstate 90/39 would be delayed if funding isn't shored up in the state's next budget.
Interviewed by WisconsinEye Network on Monday, Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said the state is facing a transportation budget shortfall of between $600 million and $700 million for the next biennium, which runs July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2017.
In addition, Gottlieb said a commission appointed by Gov. Scott Walker has identified a total of $6.8 billion that will be needed to fund road projects in the next 10 years.
The state's Transportation Projects Commission approved the I-90/39 project in 2010. Construction is scheduled to start in 2015 and end in 2019.
It will expand the Interstate from four to six lanes from the Illinois state line to Madison and from four to eight lanes through Janesville.
The state's main source of transportation revenue—gas taxes—has been declining as people drive less. Gottlieb said Monday that new revenue ideas likely would be part of his department's budget request later this year.
The state also gets a pot of money from the federal government that it then divvies up among state projects.
Starting Tuesday in La Crosse, the department is kicking off a campaign to discuss and gather information about the future of transportation in Wisconsin.
Part of that, Gottlieb said, will be a discussion about funding.
Last year, Walker established a commission to review major highway projects and report back to the Legislature by January 2016 on any projects appropriate for removal from the list.
Faced with a projected shortfall that could amount to about 30 percent of the state's major transportation budget in 2015-17, Gottlieb was asked Monday what effect that might have on the $950 million project in Rock and Dane counties.
“I think it is very plausible to say that we would delay the I-39/90 project if we were facing those kinds of reductions,” he said.
As of February, the state has spent more than $41 million on the I-90/39 project, with about 78 percent of that money being allocated to design work.
In 2015, 2016 and 2017—a portion of which would be funded by the state's next budget—the state plans to spend $443 million on the local project.
Forward Janesville has been a long-time supporter of the expansion project, touting its safety and economic development benefits.
Dan Cunningham, the organization's vice president, was not surprised by Gottlieb's comment.
“It's big on our minds as well,” Cunningham said. “We've been trying to take a proactive approach, but we know what's coming. The funding challenges are very real and they're definitely out there.”
Cunningham speculated that Gottlieb is trying to spark a meaningful discussion about the future of transportation and how it's funded.
“We've got to find a more permanent, lasting funding mechanism for transportation in Wisconsin,” Cunningham said.
In a lengthy report, Walker's commission recommended a variety of ways to raise revenue, including a gas tax hike, charging drivers at registration time based on how much they drove the previous year, increasing registration fees for larger vehicles and boosting driver's license fees.
While the commission's recommendations initially went nowhere, Cunningham suspects they'll resurface as the state wrestles with its transportation budget shortfalls.
“They will come back, and there will be some difficult decisions to be made,” he said.
In the meantime, Forward Janesville is continuing to stress the importance of the project with state and federal lawmakers.
A recent trip to Washington included lobbying efforts for a reauthorization of a federal highway bill that expires at the end of September.
Without a new reauthorization bill, federal infrastructure investment falls to zero in 2015, at least theoretically. In the past, Congress has been unable to craft an acceptable bill on schedule and has instead relied on repeated extensions to cover funding while it worked out the next reauthorization.
“It's possible that will be extended,” Cunningham said. “While we think we can count on the feds for some help, we've got to address these issues at home.”