Baldwin backs I-90/39 expansion
JANESVILLE While state lawmakers consider how to pay for the expansion of Interstate 90/39, Wisconsin's newest U.S. senator said Friday she'd work to make sure the local project gets as much federal money as possible.
Construction is expected to start in 2015 on the $835 million project that will widen the Interstate from the Illinois state line to the Beltline in Madison.
Wisconsin budgets on a two-year cycle, and Gov. Scott Walker this week unveiled his 2013-15 budget. That budget is believed to include about $70 million to fund the project into 2015, when heavy construction and spending will ramp up and another budget cycle will begin.
Local officials have said they've been told the state will pay for about 70 percent of the project, with the federal government paying the balance.
Historically, the federal government has paid up to 80 percent of improvement projects on its highway system.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, said Friday she's uncertain that the federal share of the I-90/39 program is any less than it is for other Interstate expansion programs.
Speaking at a Forward Janesville legislative breakfast Friday, she said she would find out if and why that's the case.
"If it is the case, I will do my best to advocate to change that," Baldwin said, noting that the widening project is vital for economic development and safety on a transportation corridor that's critical to the state and region.
For several years, Forward Janesville has pushed the expansion project, which finally was approved at the state level in 2010.
"The state has stepped up and made it a priority," said John Beckord, president of the private economic development organization. "We need the federal government to be an active partner, and we wonder why there is a lower rate of federal funding than there has been for other large federal projects."
Baldwin said part of the problem has been a "kick-the-can-down-the-road" approach to federal transportation funding.
"Part of making sure it's a success is ensuring that federal transportation funding is long term and it's sustained," she said. "We've been budgeting with short-term extensions of six months, two years."
Instead, she said, the nation needs a five-year transportation budget that state and local governments can rely on for their road construction planning.
Historically, transportation infrastructure budgeting was one of the most bipartisan things Congress did, primarily because improvement projects had a huge multiplier on local economies, said Baldwin, who served seven terms in the House of Representatives before defeating Tommy Thompson for Sen. Herb Kohl's Senate seat in November.
But those spending bills, she said, were built on gas taxes that have been dramatically reduced by fuel economy improvements.
"That fund is wholly inadequate," she said.
The country is being forced to change the way it pays for highway projects, and Baldwin said she is open to any discussion on new funding mechanisms. Changes, she said, need to be proposed by individual states.
Baldwin also touched on other topics Friday:
-- Gun control: Baldwin said she thinks the country can reach a consensus on the majority of the 23 recommendations that came from a gun control panel headed by Vice President Joe Biden. She believes there's a way to institute universal background checks for guns sales, 40 percent of which now take place without checks.
The senator said she is less certain there will be agreement on an assault weapons bans.
-- Pending sequester: Baldwin said Congress must find the appropriate balance to throttle-up the U.S. economy while tackling its debt and deficit problems. The nation, she said, must stop hopping from "cliff to cliff, crisis to crisis.
"We must come together," she said, noting that she heard a common message as she traveled the state this week. "It's hard to have faith that Washington can find common ground, but it can be done. It must be done."
Later Friday, Baldwin visited Blackhawk Technical College to learn more about its proposal for an advanced manufacturing training center.
The BTC board voted Thursday to lease a vacant manufacturing building in Milton as the new home of all of its manufacturing programs, starting in fall 2014.