I-90/39 plan gains speed
Politics and time, however, will tell whether a new governor and Legislature put the brakes on the project or wave it into the state's next budget.
The state's Transportation Projects Commission—a group that met Tuesday for the first time in eight years—approved the local project and three others on a near unanimous vote.
The $1 billion plan calls for expanding a 45-mile stretch of Interstate from four lanes to six between the state line and the Beltline in Madison.
Under state law, the TPC approves only transportation projects outside of southeastern Wisconsin.
Department of Transportation studies show that 60,000 vehicles travel the Interstate between the Illinois border and Madison on average every day. Nearly a third of that traffic is commercial, with the rest consisting of commuters and tourists. Projections show that the number of people using the route will increase by 50 percent by 2030, making it the most congested road in the state.
While the 14-member commission voted unanimously in favor of the four statewide projects, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, registered his opposition to the I-90/39 expansion, arguing that I-43 north of Milwaukee should be expanded to six lanes first.
He said that while Rock and Dane counties might have more truck traffic than I-43, the overall traffic counts in Milwaukee are significantly higher.
"People outside of Milwaukee don't know what busy roads are," Grothman said after the meeting.
In his 17 years in the state Assembly and Senate, Grothman said he's seen a pattern of out-state legislators pushing road projects through as a way to get re-elected. Over time, he said, the Milwaukee area has been treated like "the little sisters of the poor" when it comes to transportation funding.
Gov. Jim Doyle, who chairs the TPC, noted during the meeting that the Milwaukee area has received plenty of transportation funding in recent years. The city's Marquette Interchange was reconstructed at a cost of $810 million, while a $15 million reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange is under way.
The expansion of I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois state line should be complete by 2016 at a cost of $1.9 billion, Doyle said.
Rock County representatives have touted the local expansion as a way to improve safety and boost economic development.
Dan Cunningham is a Forward Janesville vice president and coordinator of the group's I-39/90 Coalition that's been promoting the expansion at state and federal levels.
After the meeting, Cunningham said the coalition was gratified with the TPC's support, which he said was the result of a lot of Rock County effort over the past year.
"The next step is to go ahead and secure funding," he said. "That will take a really concerted lobbying effort—again.
"We've cleared this statutory hurdle, but now we've got to sell it to the whole Legislature, sell it to Glenn Grothman. There's a lot of convincing to do, and not everyone is sold on this."
Earlier this year, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan appointed himself and two other Democratic representatives to the TPC. Sheridan could not attend Tuesday's meeting because of an illness in the family.
But in a news release, he said TPC approval was a critical step in a process championed by area lawmakers and a diverse coalition of public and private sector stakeholders.
"Improvements to I-39/90 are absolutely necessary if we are to keep motorists safe and strengthen south central Wisconsin's economy," he said. "This construction project is a win-win for the people of my district, and I'm proud to have pushed it forward.
"Our top priority is to get folks back to work and create a business environment that supports growth, and we are going to make that happen."
In making its recommendation to the TPC, the DOT ranked the I-90/39 project as the highest priority. The other three DOT-recommended and TPC-approved projects are:
-- Highway 38 in Racine and Milwaukee counties.
-- Highway 10/Highway 441 in Outagamie County.
-- Highway 15 in Winnebago County.