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Interstate expansion marches into winter


Before snow flies, the state Department of Transportation hopes to finish work on a stretch of Interstate 90/39 south of Janesville that’s been under construction since spring.

If weather cooperates, traffic going north will get to test three new Interstate lanes poured this summer in the 7-mile stretch between Shopiere and Avalon roads, DOT project managers said.

The DOT would shut down the temporary lane switchover that for months has put northbound motorists just a few feet away from southbound traffic separated by a concrete barrier.

As of Monday, the lane switchover remained in place between Avalon and Shopiere roads. Crews were working on shoulders and to tie new lanes into not-yet-finished areas, mainly around interchanges.

A few weeks ago, the DOT closed down part of the switchover and opened a stretch of new northbound lanes through Janesville. As winter weather descends, the DOT wants to have traffic from Beloit to Janesville running in a regular pattern rather than winding onto temporary construction lanes that have operated this year, said Rich Cannon, a DOT project supervisor for the I-90/39 expansion.

Kim Schauder, a DOT project manager working with Cannon on the 45-mile Interstate expansion between Beloit and Madison, said: “It’s better for the drivers, better for snowplowing.”

Cannon said motorists likely will see crews knock out pockets of unfinished lane work in the next three to five weeks. That likely will gear the northbound stretch between Beloit and Janesville for a switch-over to the new lanes in stages.

“We have small, segmented, individual projects. It’s not one monolithic job. Right now, we have a couple of projects that are not quite as far along as the other ones, so it doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in stages,” Cannon said.

He said work is running mostly in step with the estimated schedule, and phases of the Janesville-area expansion spelled out for 2019—the second half of the state’s two-year budget cycle—are funded as of this time.

Looking at 2019

Winter will be a comparatively quiet season for work on the Interstate, with just a few smaller projects rolling out as weather allows, Cannon and Schauder said.

In spring 2019, widening the Interstate from four lanes to six will pick up again between Beloit and Janesville. Lane switchovers will reopen as work on the southbound lanes of the Interstate rolls out.

On Janesville’s north side, some eye-grabbing work will start to take shape: Between the Highway 14 interchange and Kennedy Road, contractors will begin raising the Interstate 26 to 27 feet above its current grade, Cannon said.

The DOT engineered the road to that height in part to meet its own engineering standards for an eight-lane road that would cross over several main roads and link with two rebuilt interchanges within a mile of each other, Cannon said.

He said people might wonder about what appears to be a large hill being built in the Interstate’s path

“Because it’s a wide footprint and it’s going to be elevated 26 to 27 feet, there is going to be a lot of earthwork that has to take place. So people should know there’s going to be a lot of movement of trucks to and from this area as they create that section,” Cannon said.

It’s one of the sections that would tie into major redesigns of the Highway 26 and Highway 14 interchanges. The interchange replacements will roll out in 2020, according to DOT timelines.

Between Beloit and Madison next summer, lane switchovers, temporary closures and construction speed zones will remain a daily steeplechase for commuters.

The project is expected to be completed sometime in 2021, according to DOT project timelines. That would be in time for the DOT to roll out the capstone project in 2022: a complete reboot of Humes Road from I-90/39 west to Milton Avenue.

When that’s done, the vast bulk of heavy construction along the Interstate, a roughly five-year spell of lane and exit ramp closures and diversions, should have ended.

Cannon said the project at some point will begin to take form as the future roadway doubles in size compared to the current Interstate.

“It doesn’t really take shape until there is a semblance of a roadway alignment. When it’s just uncovered earth, it’s just hard to tell how it’s going to look,” Cannon said.

“If you see it and you remember it in the infancy in one of the projects and you drive through it again, you’ll see changes and maybe it’ll dawn on you, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what it’s going to have.’”

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Walworth County approves 2019 budget, remains debt free


Walworth County has positioned itself as perhaps the only debt-free county in Wisconsin, and county officials said Monday they likely will stave off borrowing until at least 2021.

In the 2019 budget, all of the county’s capital funding will come from the tax levy and fund balance. The Walworth County Board approved the 2019 budget Monday, and the county isn’t forecasting borrowing for capital projects for at least another two years.

The 2018 budget saw a hike in spending for a $24 million health and human services building and $9.1 million to pay off debt. It was noticeably higher spending than the last several years, and the 2019 budget drops expenditures by nearly 25 percent—or about $49 million.

Numbers from the state show every Wisconsin county had some debt in 2016, the most recent year for which numbers were available.

Jason Stein, research director at Wisconsin Policy Forum, said Walworth County had a per-capita debt of $62 in 2016. That was the third-lowest among the state’s 72 counties, Stein said.

Dale Knapp, director of research at the Wisconsin Counties Association, said a local government being debt-free is unusual in part because of state-imposed levy limits. Because the state limits how much governments can collect from property taxes, the only way municipalities, counties and school districts may exceed their state-mandated taxing limit is by asking voters through referendum.

Knapp said new development in counties also has been sluggish since the Great Recession. Most counties have seen their property values rise by 1.5 percent or less each year since then, he said.

Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl has said Walworth County’s overall equalized value still has not returned to what it was before the Great Recession.

Knapp said slow-rising property values have left counties raking in fewer tax dollars while costs for things such as roads have increased.

“There’s very little wiggle room, if any, in these budgets,” Knapp said. “When you put the whole pie together, county revenue hasn’t been growing much. ... You’re making a decision to put money aside for a big project or paying for roads now before the cost goes up.”

Walworth County Comptroller Jessica Conley said Walworth County had been beefing up its savings for several years to pay for the health and human services building and its final debt-service payment. She said the county had been appropriating money from savings in operations, such as vacant positions and coming in under budget.

Overall, the county had set aside $30 million for its final debt-service payment and the new building. Conley said the county avoided about $3.3 million in future interest payments by whittling its debt over the last 10 years. The county had $52.9 million in outstanding debt in 2008.

Walworth County has not borrowed for capital projects since 2011, according to the finance department. Future borrowing is possible in 2021 after a study recommended $25.1 million in updates to the county’s radio communication infrastructure. Conley said whether the county eventually borrows for that project will depend on its savings over the next several years and state funding.

Wisconsin governor, Senate candidates make their final pitches

Scott Walker and Tony Evers finished their campaigns for governor the way they started them, with Walker focused on the economy and keeping taxes down and Evers talking up the need to protect health care coverage and provide more funding for schools and roads.

Evers, the state schools superintendent, made his final pitch Monday in a swing through southern Wisconsin as the two-term governor flew across the state for stops in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Schofield and De Pere. His travels ended with a nighttime rally in the Republican stronghold of Waukesha.

In the state’s other top-tier race, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Republican challenger Leah Vukmir made their cases.

Vukmir emphasized her support for President Donald Trump and his bid to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Baldwin stressed health care, a consistent theme of her re-election campaign.

At a stop at Beloit College, Evers declared himself a pragmatist committed to getting things done and contrasted himself with Walker, who launched a presidential campaign shortly after his 2014 re-election.

“I’m going to Madison to solve problems,” Evers said. “I’m not going to Madison to go someplace else. That frustrates people sometimes—‘Well, is Evers a moderate or is he a liberal?’ Frankly, I don’t care. What we have to do is solve issues that the people of the state of Wisconsin care about, period.”

Like Evers, Walker closed the race by hitting a theme that has defined his career—cutting taxes. In recent weeks, he has argued Evers would drive up taxes, leading his rallies with chants of “Tony’s taxes will cost us jobs.”

In Schofield, Walker drew a dire picture if he loses his re-election bid.

“We’ve got a great track record,” Walker said. “We’ve turned things around. Eight years ago, this state was a mess. We can’t afford to go back to that. We can’t go back to the days of double-digit tax increases, billion-dollar deficits and record job loss. That’s where Tony Evers would take us.”

In recent days, Evers has said he plans to raise no taxes, while holding out the possibility that he could increase the gas tax. He told reporters he didn’t see a discrepancy in his talk about taxes.

“In order to solve this transportation problem, I’ll bring people together with no preconceived solutions,” Evers said. “Having preconceived solutions is the surest way to make sure that nothing happens.”

On other taxes, Evers plans to cut income taxes by 10 percent for individuals who make up to $100,000 and families that make up to $150,000. He would pay for that cut by eliminating a tax break for farmers and manufacturers that have revenue of more than $300,000 a year.

Walker campaign manager Joe Fadness said Evers’ latest statements made plain he was willing to raise the gas tax and income taxes on farmers and manufacturers.

“He can try to fool taxpayers all he wants, but the facts don’t lie and Tony’s political double-talk has to stop,” Fadness said in a statement.

Evers was on the offensive when it came to health care, saying Walker could not be believed when he claimed in recent days that he wanted to put Obamacare’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions in state law. Walker said late last week he wanted to accept those provisions word for word, going further than he had before after fighting Obamacare—known formally as the Affordable Care Act—for years.

Evers said Walker was lying because he is in federal court to try to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Walker said Sunday on WISN-TV he “absolutely” could get such a measure passed through the Republican-controlled Legislature, even though lawmakers declined to pass a more modest proposal this year.

“The bottom line is, Obamacare is a mess,” Walker told reporters Monday at his stop in Schofield. “What we’re putting in is the same thing we had before Obamacare, which is ensuring that people with pre-existing conditions will always be covered.

“That’s the big lie from Tony Evers, it’s part of a nationally orchestrated lie out there. We will always cover people with pre-existing conditions.”

Walker said there was no need to pass his proposal now, but he could get the Legislature to act if the courts or Congress take away Obamacare’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Walker got some help Monday from Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee. Nygren said he supported Walker’s concept, though he had not yet researched the details of his plan.

Leaders in the state Senate have not yet said whether they would go along with Walker’s plan. GOP senators have been more resistant to covering pre-existing conditions than their counterparts in the Assembly.

Baldwin vs. Vukmir

At a stop at the Marathon County GOP office in Weston, Vukmir said she was not daunted by polls that have shown her trailing Baldwin. She reminded her supporters of what happened in 2016, when Trump and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson entered election day behind in the polls, only to emerge as winners.

“I do stand with our president for building that wall, securing our borders,” Vukmir said.

She charged that Baldwin “stands for open borders, she stands for sanctuary cities, she stands for abolishing ICE.”

Baldwin voted for the 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed in the U.S. Senate and failed in the House. She has said she does not support abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and does not support open borders.

“You cannot look at that vote and what we did to put in that bill and say anyone who supported it is anything but strong on our border security,” she told reporters in Beloit.

In her speech, she noted Republicans attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year but came up one vote shy in the Senate.

“My opponent wants to be one vote the other way,” Baldwin told the crowd. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

Afterward, she said Vukmir and Walker were not being honest with voters when they talk about their commitment to covering pre-existing conditions because of their opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s a 180-degree reversal from their actions, and they can’t hide from the their actions,” Baldwin said.

Also Monday, Evers criticized Walker for an executive order he issued Friday that would make the National Guard available to help with cybersecurity if there is a hacking attempt on the state’s elections systems. Evers said Walker could have done more on cybersecurity much earlier by providing more staff to the state Elections Commission.

“It’s an election-year stunt,” Evers said. “It’s nice to be real excited about cybersecurity two days before the election when he had money in the budget that he vetoed that would have helped (the Elections Commission) to take care of this issue. … To suddenly at the last minute say let’s bring in the Guard to do this, you know, it’s a stunt. It’s a political stunt. He could have solved this months ago.”

Scott Walker

Tony Evers

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