Funding sources are at heart of Wisconsin’s transit debate

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Southeastern Wisconsin is in the midst of the greatest and most expensive upgrades to its transportation infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System was constructed by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s.

Projects include:

  • The $810 million completion of the Marquette Interchange reconstruction was recently completed.
  • The current $1.9 billion construction of the I-94 expansion between Milwaukee and the Illinois state line is set to be completed in 2016.
  • The temporary $15.3 million reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange has begun.
  • The Obama administration recently announced $810 million in federal funding for high-speed rail to connect Milwaukee to Madison.

The burning question now is how will all of these projects be paid for at a time when local, state and federal governments are broke? The issue of funding dominated the discussion of a transit forum co-presented by WisPolitics and BizTimes Milwaukee on Thursday.

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The Zoo Interchange, built in 1963, is the busiest interchange in Wisconsin, providing connections between I-94, I-894 and U.S. 45. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is repairing three of the key bridges of the interchange.

“Milwaukee has an aging system. It did the job it intended to do from the start,” Tom Carlsen, former WisDOT Secretary, said at the forum. “This was done according to the age and the use of the structure of when it was designed.”

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“It has been a perfect storm of design deficiencies in the last 50 to 60 years,” added Kenneth Yunker, executive director Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, referring to the Zoo Interchange.

According to Ryan Luck, project construction chief for emergency bridge replacement for WisDOT, the temporary repair construction of the Zoo Interchange is contracted for $15.3 million. Construction has occurred primarily during the evening hours. However, ramps have been shut down on weekends.

According to Luck, there are two more closures projected for May and demolition on June 14.
WisDOT is evaluating a long-term solution for the Zoo Interchange. Some have speculated the long-term plan could cost $2.3 billion, which would make it the most expensive project in state history.

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“The Zoo Interchange is a bottleneck, and that interchange is the heart of Milwaukee’s freeway system, and that heart beats for the Wisconsin economy and all commercial traffic comes together there with the traffic from Fox Valley and Appleton,” Carlsen said.

“The Medical College of Wisconsin’s No. 1 priority is transportation. We were disappointed with what happened with the budget last year. It is critical to get patients, faculty and students on our campus, especially when we serve over 1 million patients on our campus each year,” said Kathryn Kuhn, associate vice president of government affairs at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “We don’t want to wait until 2016, we need it now and need it done right.”

Funding for the Zoo Interchange reconstruction has fueled a heated debate with local business leaders and politicians who disagree on how to sustain transportation funding for the state of Wisconsin.
“The state of transportation in Wisconsin is in flux, it is in trouble, but is positioned for opportunity,” said Craig Thompson executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. “We need to diversify our funding for transportation.”

On Jan. 28, the Obama administration announced $822 million in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin, including $810 million for a highs-speed rail line to connect Milwaukee to Madison. The Milwaukee to Madison rail service is expected to be operational by 2013, according to the White House.

“All (projects) need to get done. We can’t just pick and choose and say transit is necessary but then pick and choose. We can’t set a priority. All needs to get done, and that’s the challenge ahead,” Yunker added.

One heavily debated alternative source of funding today was a gas sales tax increase.

“I’d like to get off the gas tax,” said Carlsen in his opening remarks.

Tollways also were discussed as an alternative to tax increases. According to Gretchen Schuldt co-chair of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, “Tolls are inevitable.” 

“When the taxpayer invests money, they want it used wisely, and we need the confidence of the public to invest in this infrastructure,” Luck said.

“We need to find a smarter way for funding in both southeastern Wisconsin and across the state. We need more money and transportation is a return on investment for our economy,” Thompson said.

“Transportation funding is static. If we look at it as static, then we can’t afford to do one project over another.”

“We need to synchronize efforts and get all on the same page with cost factors to eliminate confusion,” said Dan Devine mayor of West Allis.

“To continue to have the CEOs of S.C. Johnson and Son Inc., Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., and AT&T Wisconsin, some of our last major employers in the state of Wisconsin and economy-based industries behind rail says a lot,” Yunker said.


Liz Ramus is a reporter for BizTimes Milwaukee.

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