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Cuts in Wisconsin transportation fund could put I-39/90 expansion in park

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JAMES P. LEUTE
December 7, 2010
— Local officials are unsure what impact a deficit and projected cuts in the state's transportation budget will have on the proposed expansion of Interstate 90/39 in Rock and Dane counties.

As part of their 2011-13 budget, Wisconsin officials are recommending about $313 million in cuts for the two-year period.


That's on top of the department's current budget, which is heading to a June expiration with a shortfall of nearly $91 million.


Declining revenue from the state's gas tax and a significant drop in vehicle registrations are fueling the deficit and projected cuts.


State officials have said the shortfalls will be offset by a likely increase in federal aid. But at this point, they said, that's an uncertain scenario.


"For Wisconsin … traditional revenue sources for transportation are not providing the natural growth they once did," Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi wrote in his budget request. "The same trend is occurring nationally—growth in gas tax revenues are holding steady at best, or declining. Long-term national and state solutions are needed."


Most of the proposed budget cuts are in the rehabilitation program, which covers everything from simple resurfacing jobs to large projects that rip out and replace large sections of highways. The department has not yet identified any projects it would delay.


"I really don't know what this means for our project," said Dan Cunningham, a Forward Janesville vice president and coordinator of the group's I-39/90 coalition that's been promoting the expansion as a vehicle for economic development and a safer Interstate.


In October, the state Transportation Projects Commission approved four statewide projects, including the $1 billion plan to expand a 45-mile stretch of Interstate from four lanes to six between the state line and the Beltline in Madison.


Commission approval was considered a significant step in the project, which now moves on to a Republican-controlled Senate, Assembly and governor's office for final approval.


"The cuts that are being talked about are to the rehabilitation program, not the major construction program that would include our project," Cunningham said. "But the budget proposal is also silent on any of the major projects."


Cunningham noted that the state is facing significant budget deficits that go well beyond the state's transportation department.


With declining revenues from gas taxes and new vehicle registrations, lawmakers likely will be forced to rethink the way Wisconsin pays for its transportation projects.


"We're still hopeful, still feeling good about it," he said. "We continue to make the case to legislators and Governor-elect Walker that if you want to make a splash with jobs, this is the project to do it."


Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan of Janesville said the DOT ranked the local expansion as the highest priority in recommending it to the Transportation Projects Commission. He, too, is confident the project will become a reality.


"I believe the new governor will move it forward," said Sheridan, who worked hard over the last year to get the project before the commission, which hadn't met in eight years. "But there are an awful lot of challenges ahead for the new Legislature and governor.


"With the TPC approval, I think we set the table to get the project in the hopper and start setting money aside for it."


Material from Gazette wire services was used in this story.

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