The new state transportation chief is giving the green light for continued work this spring on the 12-mile Janesville leg of the Interstate 90/39 expansion project.
The news was welcomed locally and comes after days of uncertainty over whether the project could be rebid and delayed at least a year because of projected cost overruns.
In an interview with The Gazette on Friday, newly appointed state Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson said he has opted to sign off on bids for work slated to roll out this spring on the Interstate section through Janesville.
That’s even though the project, based on a single bid proposal, likely will cost 6 percent to 7 percent more than the state Department of Transportation’s earlier estimates, according to a DOT memo released this week.
On Friday, Thompson said he agrees with the DOT recommendation that rebidding the project risks further cost increases of at least $20 million, and it would spell at least a year delay for a project already estimated to last until 2021.
Thompson believes the project has reached a mid-point stage, and delays now would cause prolonged disruption to beleaguered motorists and businesses along the construction-hobbled I-90/39 corridor.
“Once you begin a project like this and you’ve disrupted business along a corridor, it’s important that we get it done and get it done as soon as possible,” he said.
Based on multiple conversations and cost evaluations from DOT officials, Thompson said he doesn’t think the state would save money by rebidding the project to get a potentially less costly contract.
He said five contractors were eligible to bid on the Janesville segment, but only one did: I-39 Constructors, a partnership between Janesville-based Rock Road Companies and Black River Falls contractor Hoffman Construction Company.
If the central segment were delayed, the entire project—a 45-mile multilane expansion between Beloit and Madison estimated at more than $1 billion—would take until 2022 to finish, according to the DOT memo.
Thompson said he believes new Gov. Tony Evers will support his decision to forge ahead with the Janesville segment. He said Evers likely will decide whether to give final approval within the next week.
Some statewide media outlets presented Friday’s decision to go ahead as a litmus test of how Thompson, who has been appointed but not confirmed, might fare with some Republican lawmakers who have the power to accept his appointment as transportation secretary.
Lawmakers in the past few years have blasted the DOT and its leadership for project costs that have swollen far beyond projections.
The I-90/39 project faced earlier criticism from some lawmakers for lowball cost projections the DOT later had to amend.
Thompson told The Gazette that a projected cost overrun of nearly 7 percent “doesn’t satisfy me,” but he pointed out that road-building material costs have been volatile over the last year, in part driven by the mammoth Foxconn project near Racine.
The DOT memo that recommended the Janesville project move forward noted about 95 other bid proposals for road projects in 2017 and 2018 came in more than 10 percent higher than earlier estimates.
During the same period, Thompson said, about a dozen such projects came in with bid proposals that were 6 percent to 7 percent above previous estimates, a disparity similar to the bid on the Janesville project.
A mammoth, multipart project such as the I-90/39 expansion requires bidding out some work even if DOT engineers are only “60 to 70 percent” done with designs, Thompson said. That can lead to a margin of error when it comes to costs, he said.
Thompson wants “more consistent communication” between the DOT and a state panel of lawmakers who examine road projects. He believes the panel and the DOT should convene at least once a year to look at factors that might influence project costs.
Forward Janesville Vice President Dan Cunningham said Friday he believes Thompson made the right move by green-lighting the Janesville project.
“The Janesville-area business community applauds the secretary’s action. He may take some political heat for it, but it was unquestionably the right thing to do,” Cunningham said.
“Putting this project segment out for rebidding could have delayed the project by as much as a year and added $20 (million) to $40 million to the price tag. We simply can’t afford such a delay.”