Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials say the final phase of the Zoo Interchange reconstruction project could begin next year if lawmakers approve Gov. Tony Evers' proposal to put $175 million toward the project.
Work has recently wrapped up on the first two phases of the massive $1.3 billion Zoo Interchange project. So far, the core of the interchange has been rebuilt and reconfigured, along with the addition of lanes in certain areas and the expansion of several system ramps. What remains is the reconstruction and expansion of the north leg section of freeway (north of the core interchange) between Swan Boulevard and Burleigh Street. This project includes adding a lane in each direction, rebuilding the interchanges with North Avenue and Burleigh Street, as well as the link with North Mayfair Road, rebuilding a number of bridges and performing work on the Union Pacific Railroad line.
In his 2019-21 state budget proposal, Evers has called for that work to finish. Of the $175 million allocated toward the project, $110 would come from segregated funds and $65 million would come from bonding, said Craig Thompson, WisDOT secretary-designee.
The interchange was first built in the 1960s and has reached the end of its useful life, Thompson said.
"The advancing age and deteriorating condition of the infrastructure results in costly and ongoing maintenance, such as resurfacing, barrier-wall repairs and bridge rehabilitation," he said at a news conference on Wednesday. "Under the current conditions, traffic must merge from six lanes to three in 1.4 miles, causing significant congestion."
The proposed state transportation budget would allow work on the interchange's northern leg to begin by late summer 2020.
WisDOT officials estimate delaying work on the Zoo Interchange increases construction costs by roughly $8.4 million per year. Having been delayed four years so far, the northern leg work has become nearly $34 million more expensive, said Thompson.
Evers' budget proposal would also put the expansion of Interstate 43 back on track. That project would add lanes to the stretch of interstate from Silver Spring Drive in Glendale to State Highway 60 in Grafton. However, it does not fund the planned expansion of the Interstate 94 east-west corridor, which would make safety updates such as moving all left-lane entrances and exits to the right lane as well as add a lane in each direction on the 3.5-mile stretch between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges.
Thompson said the decision to enumerate the I-43 expansion and not I-94 East-West was due in part to the fact the federal government had rescinded its Record of Decision on the I-94 East-West project. This federal approval is given once an environmental review is completed on a project, but the decision isn't permanent. Since the state did not put money toward the I-94 expansion project in its current biennial budget, that approval was taken away.
To regain this federal approval would require more time and money from the state relative to moving ahead with the I-43 project.
"We're not going to solve everything in one budget, but I think this is balancing people's appetite and ability to pay, and the significant things we need to get done," Thompson said. "I think we struck a pretty good balance."
Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), whose district is near the Zoo Interchange, said he was glad to see the Zoo Interchange included in the proposed state transportation budget.
"It's an important piece of the puzzle, you might as well finish it off," he said.
Even so, Sanfelippo said he was concerned with the choice to enumerate the I-43 expansion rather than the I-94 East-West project. He pointed out the state has spent around $3 billion collectively to rebuild the Marquette and Zoo interchanges, yet the aging stretch of interstate between the two creates a bottleneck for traffic.