Would I-90 expansion increase safety, economic development?

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Sunday, September 5, 2010
— Expanding Interstate 90/39 to six lanes between the state line and Madison would make the route safer and spur economic development and tourism, proponents of the idea say.

State crash data give some support to the safety argument, but evidence for economic stimulation that six lanes might bring is primarily anecdotal.

Discussed for decades, the project picked up steam earlier this year when Forward Janesville formed the I-39/90 Coalition to push the expansion at state and federal levels.

Into the passing lane?

The group scored a coup last month when it convinced Gov. Jim Doyle to convene the Transportation Projects Commission, the powerful state committee that recommends major highway projects to the Legislature. With state and federal funding tied up in several state projects—most notably the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee—the group hasn’t met in the eight years Doyle has been in office.

But as projects have been completed, time and funding have become available.

Commission approval, which could come by December, would carry significant weight with the Legislature as it sets its 2011-13 budget.

Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, is optimistic the commission will recommend the expansion that’s expected to cost more than $1 billion. Half of the project’s cost would come from state borrowing. The remainder would be split between the state’s transportation fund and the federal government.

Sheridan has reason for optimism—at least right now—as friendly Democrats control the Senate, Assembly and governor’s office. As Assembly speaker, Sheridan appoints Assembly Democrats to the Transportation Projects Commission.

The 14-member commission is chaired by the governor and has five members from each house, including three from the majority party in both and two each from the minority party. It also includes three citizen members.

In appointing Assembly Democrats, Sheridan has done his homework on the expansion project.

He’s appointed himself, Fred Clark of Baraboo and John Steinbrink of Pleasant Prairie.

“I’m putting people on there that will do the right thing,” Sheridan said. “I’m optimistic that the make-up will be such that project will get support.”

Doyle administration officials have said the commission will meet sometime between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15. Its decisions need confirmation by the new governor and Legislature as part of the next state budget.

The commission can recommend only projects that could start within five years. In the state budget approved last year, lawmakers set funding levels that would open a spot on the road construction schedule for the project in 2015 or 2016.

Even if the commission doesn’t recommend the I-90/39 expansion, Sheridan said the project still could be put to the Legislature as a separate bill.

“The commission is only one hurdle, then we’ve got to get it through the Legislature,” he said. “In the past, it’s really depended a lot on elections and who is in charge to get a project enumerated.”

The Gazette asked the three main gubernatorial candidates whether they support the I-90/39 expansion.

Democrat Tom Barrett said the corridor must be kept strong. A commission evaluation unfettered by politics is an important step, he said.

Republican Scott Walker said he supports the expansion, while Republican Mark Neumann had an ambiguous response. The state’s infrastructure is in disrepair, Neumann said, but a vital transportation system must be balanced with state budget issues.

A safer stretch?

If reading about a rash of I-90/39 accidents wasn’t enough to convince Sheridan that the Interstate between the state line and Madison was a safety hazard, a recent ride with the Wisconsin State Patrol did.

“It’s a mess out there,” said Sheridan, who rode with a trooper on a recent Sunday.

Sheridan said that during peak travel times, troopers are hesitant to pull over people as long as traffic is moving safely.

But during Sheridan’s ride, the trooper couldn’t ignore a truck pulling a trailer.

“It was weaving in and out of traffic, two kids in the back end,” Sheridan said. “We pulled it over and within two minutes both sides of the Interstate were jammed up.

“There’s just too much traffic on that two-lane stretch, and there are too many people getting killed out there.”

Over the last 30 years, statistics from the state’s Department of Transportation seem to support that contention.

Average annual daily traffic counts at Newville were 18,600 in 1975. By 2000, the number had increased to 45,000 vehicles. By 2030, 87,600 cars and trucks are expected to register at the site.

Recently, however, traffic counts along the entire stretch from the state line to the Beltline have decreased in what officials said is short-term reflection of a depressed economy and higher gas prices.

DOT studies also show that the 45-mile segment built in the late 1950s doesn’t meet safety standards for roadways, bridges and interchanges.

In terms of traffic counts and crash rates, a comparison of one Interstate segment to another is difficult because it’s subject to so many variables.

But at the Gazette’s request, the DOT generated traffic counts and crash rates for the route between the state line and just south of the Beltline in Madison. It did the same for the 30-mile stretch from a mile north of East Washington Avenue in Madison to one mile south of the Highway 78/I-39 split.

The section north of Madison is a six-lane Interstate, and—for trivia buffs—it is the longest stretch of three concurrent interstates (90/94/39) in the United States.

From 2005 to 2009, the crash rate for the two-lane section south of Madison was nearly 35 percent higher than the three-lane northern stretch, according to DOT numbers. Broken down further, the fatality rate for the southern section was slightly better, but the injury rate was nearly 45 percent higher than the northern section.

In its analysis, the DOT did not include crashes on the urbanized Madison stretch or accidents with deer. Construction zones weren’t factored in, but crashes that occurred within 1,000 feet of an interchange were included.

The DOT calculates crash rates per 100 million miles traveled. That allows comparisons despite differences in traffic volume and segment lengths.

For the southern section, the overall crash rate was 67.9. For the northern three-lane, it was 50.3.

Calculated for a five-year period, albeit one year earlier, the statewide average crash rate for rural Interstates was 65.2.

That begs questions: Does an expansion from two lanes in each direction to three lanes guarantee a safer Interstate? Would an expansion of the southern segment reduce its average of 608 crashes a year to 395 annually, the rate calculated for the northern segment?

The answers aren’t so simple, and there are no guarantees. But on its face, it seems that alleviating congestion, particularly as traffic counts are expected to increase, makes for a safer road.

“You can draw a conclusion that there’s not as much congestion on the northern segment,” said Jeff Berens, traffic safety engineer for the DOT’s southwest region that includes both segments.

“I believe there are some capacity issues down on that southern stretch, and when you start to have capacity issues, you start to see people become more impatient in their driving.”

Berens said the state can design and build the safest of roads, but it can’t control motorist behavior.

“There’s no question that we’ve seen a significant increase in volume in the last decade,” said Lt. Brad Altman, executive officer of state patrol’s southwest region. “Whenever you have an increase in volume, the opportunities for mishaps increase.

“…Three lanes certainly alleviates congestion because there’s more room to spread out that volume.”

Will they come?

Whether it’s four lanes or six lanes between Madison and the state line, projections indicate traffic volume will increase dramatically in coming years.

The efficient flow of the motorists and the tourism dollars or products they carry is a primary reason for the expansion, according to the coalition advancing the project.

“The safety issue is certainly what grabs people’s attention, but there’s a huge economic development component to this as well,” said Dan Cunningham, Forward Janesville’s vice president of government relations.

“And it’s not just for the Janesville area. It’s for the state for which we are a major Interstate gateway.”

Cunningham said an expansion would make the Interstate six lanes from Chicago to central Wisconsin, eliminating the local four-lane stretch that creates a bottleneck from both directions, he said

Between $650 million and $800 million worth of products travel along the corridor each day, he said, citing numbers generated by The National Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education at UW-Madison.

“This stuff isn’t just staying on the Interstate,” he said. “It’s branching off in all directions around the state.”

That makes a local expansion attractive for companies doing all that producing and shipping, he said.

As evidence, he points to the economic development that has occurred along the three-lane expansions in northern Illinois.

“Granted, the evidence on economic development is anecdotal,” he said. “But we see it and hear it from site development people all the time.”

Sheridan agrees.

“It is anecdotal,” he said. “But what we do know for sure is that if we don’t do it, we won’t be able to compete.

“Companies that are looking to expand and relocate are companies that are looking for a good infrastructure.”

In addition to spurring long-term economic growth, the expansion would provide jobs in the short term, Sheridan said.

He said the project would be responsible for 8,900 jobs, nearly half of which would be in the construction of the new highway. About 1,900 jobs are estimated in the construction supply industries, while another 2,500 are ancillary jobs along the corridor such as retail stores, motels and restaurants, he said.

Last updated: 3:03 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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