Jonathan Delagrave says he can point to numerous examples of when Racine County lost out on attracting new businesses because the expansion of I-94 had been delayed or was progressing slowly.
“It kind of felt like we were the hole in the doughnut in some respects,” said Delagrave, Racine County executive.[caption id="attachment_347293" align="alignnone" width="770"] Construction work is already underway on I-94 north-south in Racine County.[/caption]
More than $1 billion has been spent on the I-94 north-south corridor since 2009, with most of the money going to adding lanes and rebuilding interchanges in Kenosha and Milwaukee counties. The Racine County portion of the project progressed at a slower pace as resources went to rebuilding the Zoo Interchange.
But the arrival of Foxconn Technology Group in Mount Pleasant means Racine County is now the center of attention when it comes to Department of Transportation projects. Anyone who has driven through the I-94 corridor in Racine County recently has seen the return of the familiar orange barrels, but it might be a few months before the state knows just how long those barrels will be there.
Wisconsin applied last fall for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure For Rebuilding America grants. The state is seeking $246.2 million out of the $1.5 billion made available for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao told a House committee in early March she’s hopeful the department will announce the INFRA grants in early June, noting that lawmakers had put the program under a policy office, not an operations office.
Getting the federal grant is a key step in funding the I-94 project. Wisconsin lawmakers approved $252 million in bonding as part of the Foxconn special session legislation, but they also required the state to receive federal funds before using the money.
The grant would allow the state to finish work on I-94 by 2021, but not receiving it could delay completion until 2032, according to the state’s application.
Delagrave said not having received the grant yet is an issue, but added those from the public sector who are involved in the Foxconn project feel the state fits exactly what the U.S. DOT is looking for in projects.
“We are concerned, but we feel like we’re in a really good place to receive that as well,” he said.
Transportation was a top concern for Foxconn as it sought a location for its LCD panel manufacturing campus. Records released by state agencies under open records laws show finding grant money for the project was a suggested topic for a meeting among President Donald Trump, state officials and Foxconn executives in June 2017. The company and state officials also met with U.S. DOT officials to discuss funding options.
“We need federal support in highway & other long term transport / rail infrastructure investment in southeast Wisconsin for our special electronic mfg zone,” Alan Yeung, director of U.S. strategic initiatives for Foxconn, texted Scott Neitzel, then-secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, on June 16.
In a July 27 text, Yeung said the company would prefer to have roads widened “sooner than later.”
“Roadworks should start early to avoid or ease traffic; and finish simultaneously with fab construction,” he wrote.
Work is certainly getting started early with projects that don’t rely on the state bonding or federal funding already underway. Michael Pyritz, a state DOT spokesman, said the I-94 project was never “a non-priority” and the department is largely able to turn to plans that were already developed.
“The engineering portion of it has already been addressed; we know what we need to do to build a roadway,” he said.
Those plans call for a full reconstruction of the I-94 roadway from the dirt up, with the addition of one lane in each direction. The plan is for all traffic to be shifted to one side of the road from about mid-May through October, Pyritz said.
He added that peak summer traffic times, Friday afternoons heading northbound and Sundays heading southbound, are expected to be among the most challenging times to travel and encouraged people to take that into account. Mainline work from Highway 142 in Kenosha County all the way to Highway G is scheduled to get underway in the coming months. The northern segment from Highway G to College Avenue is scheduled to begin in the second half of the year.
It would be one thing if the department was only doing the I-94 project, but the DOT has also assumed control for local road projects in the area around Foxconn’s planned campus. Those projects – which include first resurfacing roadways to handle increased traffic and then widening a number of roads as well – add an estimated $134 million in work to the roughly $500 million planned on I-94. On top of all those projects, Foxconn will be building out its $10 billion facility.
“The only way this happens and the only way it can happen is through intergovernmental cooperation,” Delagrave said. “We are talking every day and we’re working to overcome some of these challenges.”
Pyritz noted the DOT teams working on these projects are, at their core, the same teams responsible for work on the Marquette, Mitchell and Zoo interchanges, each of which had its own unique challenges.
“There’s a lot of experience, a lot of expertise that’s being brought to bear,” he said.
While the engineering is finished for the I-94 project, the local roads require new plans to be developed. Pyritz said that presents a challenge, but the work isn’t overly complex, as most of the roads are generally flat and at grade.
Like Delagrave, Pyritz expressed confidence about the INFRA grant application, but not knowing does create uncertainty.
“Until those numbers come through, we’re not quite sure,” he said. “We’re ready to react whatever the outcome is and we’ll adjust accordingly.”
The projects around Foxconn and the I-94 corridor may be moving ahead full steam, but other conversations about how to move people around the region are still ongoing. Racine County officials have formed a task force to discuss how to best move people to employment and how to move people from the freeway to Lake Michigan.
Delagrave noted with 29 stoplights, it can take 25 or 26 minutes to go from I-94 to the lake on Highway 20, so the task force is looking at the possibility of a highway spur.
Milwaukee County officials are also discussing transit options. Milwaukee County Board chair Theo Lipscomb Sr. has proposed a commuter bus route from downtown Milwaukee and Racine to the Foxconn campus. Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman had said that approach would be inefficient and is pushing for a commuter rail option using Amtrak.
Lipscomb’s proposal would require Racine and Milwaukee counties, along with the state, to agree to jointly use $4.5 million from the recent sale of two former Midwest Airlines hangars at General Mitchell International Airport instead of trying to split the funds up. Delagrave said a discussion should include whether transit is the best use of the money or if workforce development or attraction would be better.
“We’re open to any and everything, but that conversation hasn’t started yet,” he said.