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Transportation Department seeks delay on Zoo Interchange construction

Nov. 22, 2012

Madison - The state Department of Transportation is proposing to dramatically reduce reconstruction work on the Zoo Interchange over the next two years, pushing back completion of the overall project from 2018 to 2020.

The idea, detailed in a budget request released this month, comes from Gov. Scott Walker's Department of Transportation after years of Walker criticizing his predecessor for not prioritizing work on the Zoo Interchange, the busiest in the state.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said a delay is necessary if more money isn't put toward roads.

"This is a live-within-our-means budget," Gottlieb said. "To be clear, this is not something we are happy to be proposing."

The construction slowdown on the Zoo Interchange wouldn't be the only delay. Under the department's request, seven other major projects would face delays of one to two years. If the budget picture does not improve, a planned expansion of Interstate 39/90 could also be delayed by two years, according to the department.

The proposal could meet some resistance in the Legislature, which starting in January will be controlled by Walker's fellow Republicans.

"The Zoo Interchange should have been done a few years ago. . . . A delay again I don't appreciate," said Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), a past chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Walker and lawmakers will decide early next year whether to go along with delaying the Zoo Interchange or keep it on schedule, either by putting off other projects or seeking new money for highways. Gottlieb warned that sticking to the original schedule without new money would mean further delay for other projects around the state.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie did not say whether Walker would agree to delay the Zoo Interchange project, but noted the budget request is just the starting point for discussion on the issue.

"The governor will introduce a complete budget next year, and one of his priorities will be investing in the state's infrastructure," Werwie said in a statement.

The Zoo Interchange work is scheduled to start next year and is projected to cost $1.7 billion. Under the current plan, $650 million of that would be spent from mid-2013 to mid-2015, but the DOT's proposal would cut that figure by nearly half, to $350 million.

Gottlieb said that still reflected a substantial investment in the Zoo Interchange.

"We're not walking away from the project," Gottlieb said. "We still think it's very important."

The plan would mean a two-year delay in completing the project, pushing it from 2018 to 2020. To stick with that new, later schedule, the project would then need a funding boost in the 2015-'17 budget.

Delay adds to cost

A two-year delay would increase the project's overall costs by nearly $50 million - about $40 million because of inflation and $5 million to $8 million for additional maintenance.

A slowdown on the Zoo Interchange project could also hamper plans to expand the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, the most comprehensive trauma center in the area, according to the budget request. Gene Gilchrist, executive director of the center, said he only recently learned of the possible delay for the Zoo Interchange and had not analyzed its effects on the center's expansion.

Putting off work on the Zoo Interchange could also affect the $500 million expansion to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Innovation Research Park, according to the DOT.

Further, a delay for the Zoo Interchange would mean the Wisconsin Avenue-Blue Mound Road Interchange would be closed for an additional one to two years, the budget request says. That interchange is used as a backup route for emergency vehicles.

And the Highway 100 Interchange would have reduced capacity for an extra one to two years because of the more drawn-out construction schedule.

Gottlieb and Craig Thompson, executive of the Transportation Development Association, said keeping the Zoo Interchange on its original schedule without new money would mean further delays for other projects.

"It does demonstrate what budgets are going to look like if there aren't revenue increases," Thompson said of the agency's budget request. "This scenario is still really prioritizing the Zoo even if it delays the Zoo."

The DOT continues to plan for rebuilding the section of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges - work that would likely commence after the completion of the Zoo Interchange. State law bars the department from adding a lane between Hawley Road and the Stadium Interchange adjacent to the Wood National Cemetery.

Gottlieb's agency is recommending repealing that law, saying a lane there could help provide the safe flow of traffic. Gottlieb said in any case the DOT would not propose plans that would disturb any graves.

Hoan work on schedule

One project that likely won't see delay is the reconstruction of the Hoan Bridge. Under the department's plan, $236 million would be spent on it over two years, with the work beginning by mid-2014.

"We didn't really have a choice as to funding the Hoan" because of the condition of the bridge, Gottlieb said.

Under the department's plan, work would also continue on the $1.9 billion reconstruction of I-94 from the Mitchell Interchange to the Illinois border. The DOT wants to put $30 million toward that project, with a focus on rebuilding the Highway 20 Interchange and approaches - "a critical need due to rapid deterioration of the structures," according to the budget request. Other work on the project would be deferred.

While large projects would be delayed and some aid to local governments would be trimmed, the agency is recommending plugging $55 million more into road maintenance. Gottlieb said that was important in a time of financial difficulty.

"We need to emphasize preservation of the current system," he said.

Before Walker was elected in 2010, he criticized then-Gov. Jim Doyle for not putting enough emphasis on rebuilding the Zoo Interchange. Shortly after coming into office, Walker announced plans to speed up work on the Zoo Interchange.

Walker has argued for years that the state should put more money into roads, but he opposes increasing the state gas tax. Legislative leaders have also resisted that idea in recent comments.

A state commission is to make recommendations early next year on ways to get more funding for transportation.

The commission has identified a shortfall in transportation funding over the next decade that ranges from $4 billion to $15 billion. Besides increasing the gas tax, options to provide more funding include charging people a new fee based on how many miles they drive, putting more money collected from the income and sales taxes toward roads or increasing borrowing.

Lawmakers have not embraced any of them. The mileage fee being discussed would require people to report their odometer readings annually when they register their vehicles, but has been greeted with skepticism. Using more income or sales tax money for roads could clash with a GOP plan to cut income taxes and Republicans have long criticized overly relying on debt for roads.

Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said he is hopeful legislators will put more money toward roads.

"What DOT's budget should tell people is we have a big issue with how we pay for transportation," Goss said. "These are the consequences of not having enough revenue to meet the needs."

For now, some lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach to both seeking more money for roads and how to handle the Zoo Interchange.

"I'm going to take the governor's lead and see what he puts in the budget," said Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the incoming chairwoman of the Joint Finance Committee.

Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, noted that speeding up one project, such as the Zoo Interchange, would mean delays for others.

"If you delay some of these things, how far do you go down with the domino effect?" he said.

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