State transportation officials: I-90/39 project delay possible

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Neil Johnson
July 6, 2015

JANESVILLE—As state lawmakers continue to groom a new biennial budget for a vote, new details on the road-funding plan tied into the proposed budget have slowed to a trickle.

But a state Department of Transportation official signaled in a two-sentence email to The Gazette on Monday that under lawmakers' current road funding plan, major highway projects including the $900 million Interstate 90/39 lane expansion would see years of delays.

The full impact on the Interstate expansion and other major road projects statewide is as unclear as it was a week ago, when the Legislature floated a road-funding package that will leave the DOT grappling with major funding cuts.

The DOT says it's still waiting to see a final state budget before announcing its next moves.

“We know broadly that the level of funding provided in the budget after Joint Finance Committee action would create two-year delays for I-90/39 and other major projects. WisDOT needs to have final budget language and an opportunity to review it before providing further details on impacts to specific projects, so we can't provide the information requested below at this time,” DOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt wrote in the email.

The email came after The Gazette on Monday asked the DOT's Division of Transportation Investment Management how the agency plans to handle funding of scheduled road projects in the face of $450 million in cuts the Legislature is proposing to a roads borrowing package Gov. Scott Walker floated earlier this year.

The Gazette also asked the DOT on Monday whether it would stick to its current bid-letting schedule for state highway projects in the coming months, or if bids would be delayed.

The DOT has $70 million to $75 million in project phases, all connected to the I-90/39 expansion, slated to go out for contractor bids in July and August alone, according to a master project list on the DOT's website.

That includes $17 million in Interstate bridge work over the Rock River and a $14 million plan to replace the Avalon Road interchange. Both of those projects were slated to start in spring 2016 and roll out through 2017 and 2018.

According to earlier estimates, the state had planned to spend $443 million on the I-90/39 project during the period covered by the 2015-17 state budget.

A road-funding deal put together by state Republicans shaves the borrowing Walker had proposed, but it gives the DOT authority over $500 million in borrowing that the agency could use with state gas tax revenue and driver fees to fuel a two-year roads budget.

The Republican deal, however, would sock away $350 million in bonds and put that money under the control of the state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee.

Under that deal, if the DOT wanted to tap into the committee-controlled bonds, it would have to go back to the committee to justify its spending plans.

The road-funding deal, which was announced last week, is now part of a final budget draft approved by the Joint Finance Committee. It was part of a package that broke a weeks-long deadlock among Republicans who have sought to crimp borrowing to fund road spending. Many had pushed instead for a long-term fix to fund roads, including raising the state's per-gallon gas tax along with user fees.

Walker, who plans to launch a bid for president, had dug in against those tax and fee increases.

It's not clear whether top funding authorities at the DOT have begun to clear the Xs and Os from the agency's playbook on roads projects it had planned over the next two years.

Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said he's not surprised the DOT is not addressing head-on questions about the impact the pending state budget could have on highway projects.

“Until this is signed into law, I don't think the department is going to give any indication on what is going to happen or what the plan would be. In their defense, I understand why they're not answering those types of specific questions,” Goss said. “You don't have the budget yet, and the governor still has a veto pen.”

John Vesperman, a state Department of Transportation official who oversees the I-90/39 project, said DOT staffers working directly on the I-90/39 project have been “unaffected” so far by the state's budget uncertainty.

He said the project team would continue to plan projects as they've been enumerated unless DOT funding authorities decide on a different approach. 

Vesperman said projects linked to the I-90/39 project that are now underway, such as improvements to Highway 14 on Janesville's north end, will continue as scheduled. Those projects were funded in the 2013-15 budget.  

On Monday, The Gazette requested from the DOT the most recent, updated list of work slated for the I-90/39 project over the next two years. As of Monday evening, the DOT had not provided that list.

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