When President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law last November, the five-year funding package was celebrated by some for the variety of infrastructure needs – from broadband expansions and lead pipe replacements to billion-dollar bridge projects – it could fund.
Six months later, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and local officials are working to determine which projects in the state could receive a boost from an additional $1 billion in formula funding designated for transportation projects in Wisconsin and which have a fighting chance at receiving billions of dollars in grant money being made available through the legislation, officially called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“There is going to be a lot of money for states to apply for competitive grants,” said Craig Thompson, secretary of WisDOT. “We are going to be very aggressive in finding projects that we can apply for grant dollars for.”
Wisconsin is slated to receive $5.94 billion in formula funding over the course of the next five years as part of the transportation portion of the law as well as another $225 million for bridge repairs and replacements, Thompson said.
There’s also a 30%, or $114 million, increase in the federal money the state will receive to pay for mass transit projects. That money will mainly go to assist larger transit systems in cities like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.
Airports across the state will also receive a 60% funding increase, boosting their five-year federal funding to $74 million.
WisDOT should have a better grasp on what projects will benefit from the formula funding after the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee reviews their updated funding proposals that include the added Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) dollars. Once the committee has voted on those recommendations, counties, cities and villages will have a chance to see what local projects might benefit from the added formula funding.
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Evening commuters on I-94 near the 35th Street exit. State and local officials are still debating how best to use federal infrastructure funding to improve the aging stretch of highway between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges.[/caption]
With formula funds now in the state’s hands, WisDOT officials are busy selecting projects they feel would most benefit from the additional federal funding. While IIJA dollars will be able to fund studies for newer projects, most of the projects that will receive funding to help with actual construction or other infrastructure costs are those that have already been studied as part of the state’s own multi-year capital improvement plan. Among those projects is the reconstruction of a 23-mile-long section of I-41 between Appleton and De Pere that would include replacing bridges and overpasses and adding an extra lane of traffic in each direction.
Proposed improvements to the 3.5-mile-stretch of the I-94 corridor between 16th and 70th streets in Milwaukee, which includes the interchange at Highway 175/Brewers Boulevard by American Family Field and five exits, could also benefit from IIJA funding. The state has proposed adding an extra lane in each direction, taking it to an eight-lane freeway, but just how best to improve the deteriorating roadway, which has a high crash rate but also serves as a major commuter route, remains up for debate.
A coalition of environmentalists, transit advocates and other groups put forward an alternative to expanding the roadway last fall. Dubbed “The Fix at Six,” their plan would keep that stretch at six lanes while investing more in transit infrastructure and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
Addressing the debate surrounding the project, Thompson said WisDOT has agreed to do a supplemental environmental study of the project and is making sure that officials are “looking at updated traffic counts.”
Safe streets and transit
According to Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, the best solution to the I-94 issues will be a project that helps and does no further harm to neighborhoods that were bisected when the freeway was first installed more than 60 years ago.
“We are looking at how can we better connect communities, instead of separating them,” Crowley said.
The county also hopes to take advantage of the new Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program that was established as part of the IIJA. The discretionary grant program is expected to provide $5-6 billion in grants over the next five years to regional, local and tribal governments to fund initiatives designed to prevent roadway deaths and serious injuries.
The added funding could help the county and city find solutions for slowing down traffic on city and county roadways, preventing crashes and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, Crowley said.
As it focuses on those initiatives, the county’s ongoing work on the East-West Bus Rapid Transit project – a nine-mile, regional bus service aimed at connecting downtown Milwaukee, the Near West Side, Marquette University, Wauwatosa, and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center – could also receive a boost from IIJA funding.
IIJA dollars could also help the county with efforts to create a North-South Rapid Transit Service along 27th Street as well as purchase electric buses, Crowley said.
The state will also likely benefit from $16 billion in directed grants that Amtrak could receive over the next five years to pay for improvements and expansions to its national network.
Amtrak will be receiving $24 billion over five years specifically to improve its northeast corridor serving areas like New York and Washington, D.C. So, the $16 billion in grants will likely be targeted to other parts of the country and could benefit current or new routes in the Midwest.
In addition, Wisconsin transportation officials will have the chance to compete for $36 billion in discretionary grant money through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Program.
These funding opportunities could provide money to add new passenger rail routes in Wisconsin, including an expansion of the Hiawatha route that would extend the current Chicago-to-Milwaukee Amtrak service to Madison and Green Bay. There are also proposals to bring Amtrak service to Eau Claire and Superior, which, like Madison and Green Bay, currently have no operating passenger rail stations.
The state has already done extensive studies of many of the envisioned routes, which puts it in a good position to receive some of those grants, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.
“The feds want plans. They want to know you have talked to your constituents about what they want and need,” Magliari said.
As state, county and local government officials begin to map out the kind of contracts they will need to get their infrastructure projects completed, Ugo Nwagbaraocha, president of Milwaukee-based Diamond Discs International and the head of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, hopes they put a focus on ensuring minority-owned contractors and subcontractors have the knowledge and time to effectively enter bids.
Specifically, Nwagbaraocha said governments should host pre-bid meetings that will allow smaller contractors to get a better sense of what a contract will involve before entering a bid. He would also like to see more opportunities for strategic unbundling, which would give smaller contractors the ability to know about the subcontracting opportunities on prospective jobs.
Such efforts would not only help minority contractors, but would also assist state and local governments with meeting the “disadvantaged business enterprises” goals that are often required when contracts receive federal funding, Nwagbaraocha said.
“As a small business owner, you are often reactive rather than proactive,” he said. “One of the major things we are focusing on at NAMC is how do we begin building that preparedness.”