Wisconsin’s Highway Spending Mania Makes Less Sense Every Day

Road expansion projects in Wisconsin are gobbling up money that could be spent to repair what already exists and improve transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure.

Wisconsin isn’t known as a state that makes smart use of transportation dollars, whether it’s Scott Walker rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail service, denying funds for what would have been Milwaukee’s first suburban commuter rail service, or cutting millions in state aid for transit. Now a new report from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) sheds makes it perfectly clear just how imbalanced the state’s transportation funding priorities have gotten [PDF].

The report highlights wasteful highway expansion projects slated to cost $2.8 billion. That’s on top of the $2.5 billion spent on such projects in the past two budgets. These projects would expand highways in Madison, Milwaukee, and Fond du Lac where traffic has either stagnated or dropped. Wisconsin’s profligate spending on highway expansions not only diverts money from other ways of getting around, is also shortchanges maintenance of roads that already exist.

Wisconsin could afford to restore previously-cut transit funding, increase transit operations and capital funding, invest millions in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and increase funding for state and local roads — all for the next ten years — for less than half what it plans to spend on highway expansion in the next two years alone.

Wisconsin is no stranger to lavish spending on road projects that fail to live up to projected expectations. One frequently-cited example is a four-lane rural highway bypassing the city of Burlington, population 10,508. Costing $118 million, the new road was justified by an estimated increase in traffic to the area, but a year after opening, use was 33 percent below projections. Projected traffic levels have similarly failed to transpire on at least six other road projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Projects like the Highway 11/36 bypass in Burlington are among several hundred-million-dollar roads that serve fewer drivers than projected. Photo: Casey Jacobsen.

While the state spends like a drunken sailor on road projects justified by questionable projections, Wisconsin has let modest plans to make cities like Eau Claire more walkable and bikeable fall by the wayside. Cities like La Crosse, whose population has remained virtually flat since the 1990s, saw its bus ridership nearly double between 1997 and 2013 — a trend not uncommon in other medium-sized cities throughout the state. In the same period, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have fallen in both real and population-adjusted terms.

Miles driven in Wisconsin have started to stagnate…
…but Wisconsin’s transportation spending doesn’t reflect the change in how people travel.

Further encouraging expansion and new construction of highways, the state Department of Transportation has failed to consider the least expensive or intrusive proposals when faced with the need to repair roads. Interstate 94 west of Milwaukee is one example: a 2.85-mile long stretch of the aging freeway would cost $370 million to rebuild as it exists today, but adding lanes or double-decking the freeway — the only two options WisDOT is still considering — could cost as much as $1.2 billion.

Absent from such plans are provisions that could reduce traffic instead of increasing road space, such as HOV lanes or adding transit service. In all cases, WISPIRG’s report calls on WisDOT to reexamine its traffic projections and investigate all alternatives to widening roads.

The report also encourages a “Fix-it First” approach. With 71 percent of roads rated “mediocre” or “poor quality” and 8 percent of bridges classified as “structurally deficient,” Wisconsin can’t afford new roads to maintain while leaving others to crumble. “Politicians love ribbon cuttings,” says Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation Director, but “rather than squander tax dollars on overbuilding highways, let’s prioritize the repair and maintenance of our existing infrastructure and the transit and bike improvements that we need.”

Proposed capital investments in transit, like this BRT project in Madison, sit on the shelf while the state continues to spend more on road projects. Map: Madison Area Transportation Planning Board

Wisconsin should also focus on investing in 21st century transportation infrastructure so it doesn’t lose out in a future where driving continues to decline as the public shifts toward other modes of travel. This means bringing infrastructure like bus rapid transit to its cities, a steady stream of funding dedicated for bicycle and pedestrian projects, and strengthening funding for existing transit agencies. The state government should also permit local municipalities — who have no power to raise their own taxes — to come together and once again form regional transportation authorities that can better manage their transportation needs.

In short, continued roadway expansion will only leave Wisconsinites on the hook for future maintenance — and without more environmentally friendly, economical, efficient transportation options.

  • Great thorough coverage. When these highway boondoggles are recognized as more than opportunities for ribbon cutting photos, it will make for better decisions about transportation trade offs.
    The fact that federal money will reimburse 80%+ of these kinds of projects, while transit projects are lucky to be reimbursed at 60% doesn’t help either.

  • stevehiniker

    State priorities on transportation spending couldn’t be more out of sync with what’s needed. People are driving less but spending on highway expansion is up. People are using transit more but state support for transit is down.

    Legislators like to say that the state to operate more like a private business. Any private business that ignored the laws of supply and demand would go bankrupt. Ooops – did anyone notice that despite the national economic recovery, Wisconsin is $1.8 billion in the red in 2014??

  • It’s amazing that Wisconsin’s total and per-capita VMT plateaued nearly a decade before the US as a whole, and yet they keep blowing billions on new roads at the expense of transit, active transportation, and maintenance. Road-builders have a great friend(/crony) in Scott Walker.

  • Katja

    Well done. Wisco is a great place, but is consistently shooting itself in the foot by wasting taxpayer money on long, drawn-out projects. One thing not mentioned here is just how much time these projects can take. The rebuild of I-94 from the WI/IL border to the south side of MKE has been going since 2009 and will continue through 2021! See here: http://projects.511wi.gov/web/i94northsouth/home/

  • Good point Katja. I wonder to what extent the long construction deadlines have on traffic in the end. With traffic being disrupted so long at times, entire travel patterns may change and the construction result — wider roads, in this case — may end up not being used as much as projected.

  • Southeasterner

    This conversation probably lacks a bit of perspective. Walker is primarily in power as a result of very heavy backing from the Koch brothers.

    http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2011/02/wisconsin-scott-walker-koch-brothers

    As we all know the Koch brothers made a big chunk of their billions on oil and gas and they just so happen to own the refinery that is the biggest supplier of oil products to the state of Wisconsin:

    http://www.fhr.com/refining/minnesota.aspx

    Therefor road expansion and gas consumption are in their best interest, which is a primary reason why Walker is so adamantly opposed to increasing the gas tax and investing in public transportation.

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/gas-tax-increase-for-road-work-scott-walker-mary-burke-leave-door-open-b99331463z1-271618081.html

    Until we remove special interest money from politics (which will never happen) we will continue to get representatives like Walker who continue to fight against our best interests. The sad thing in the case of Wisconsin is how blatant the connection is between Koch and Walker’s policies.

  • Joshua Pabelick

    So let me get this straight a left leaning group puts out a report that nobody has verified and you guys not only make a report about it but bash Walker over it. Hmmmm must be a slow day at school today

  • Joshua Pabelick

    Your argument is simply illogical. If this was all done for gas then he would expand public transportation and expand highways not only expand highways. Logic dictates if you expand public transport that means putting more buses/trollys etc on the road which obviously means more gas which by your theory means more money for the Koch. Of course none of this makes sense unless you think the Koch brothers simply collect money from the gas stations and there is some conspiracy theory against buses

  • Joshua Pabelick

    Construction takes years everywhere what is the point of your post exactly?

  • Joshua Pabelick

    So by “Great thorough coverage” you mean copying an article posted to the wispirg website? Man it must be nice to require so little facts and background work before accepting what you are told

  • Joshua Pabelick

    Hmmmm did you notice we were in the red when Walker came in? Did you notice the US has recovered far less than you are willing to admit? Have you noticed we had record unemployment under Obama not more than a year ago?

  • Katja

    Of course it does. Illinois, not a state famed for its efficiency, is re-doing over 50 miles of freeway and adding a lane on I-90 in the span of three years, 2013-2016.

    So why is it taking Wisco 12 years to do 35 miles? Yes, they’re redoing exit ramps too, but so is IL. Four times longer, for a shorter distance. If this construction was a kid that was born when it started, it would be in 6th grade by the time it’s done. That’s *insane.*

  • Erik

    Josh – public transport obviously means …. more gas?

    What takes more gas; 15 people driving 15 cars, or 15 people on one bus?

  • Southeasterner

    They do collect money from gas stations by the fact that they sell gas and diesel to gas stations. As far as a bus with 25 passengers consuming more diesel than 25 people driving in their own vehicles is a bit insane. Not to mention quite a few buses in Milwaukee and Madison run on natural gas not diesel, the proposed light rail would run on electricity.

  • Matt Logan

    I’ve been following Wisconsin transportation spending for quite a while now, and the data in the report looks accurate. The widening projects listed in the report were approved for study on November 2nd 2011 by the Governor’s Transportation Projects Committee. I have thoroughly studied the methodology used to justify those projects (outlined in State Admin Code, Trans-210). That methodology needs a significant re-thinking to accommodate the declining returns on investment in highway construction that has occurred over the last 50 years. WISDOT staff are unable to produce a quick net social return on investment for any of the projects, and I am also unable to get a simple graph of projected versus measured traffic counts. Further, no accounting for the beneficial safety impacts of self-driving car technology is included in any of the studies – remember that self-driving cars will be common by 2040, while highways expanded today will last until 2065, and that the traffic ans safety projections WISDOT runs try to anticipate needs until 2065.

  • Tom J.

    How are you so sure self-driving cars are going to be commonplace by 2040?

  • Matt Logan

    Lets put it this way: How can WISDOT be sure enough they won’t be commonplace that they are willing to bet billions of dollars (at a time when we don’t have the revenue) against it?

  • aw82

    While your point about Obama is COMPLETELY irrelevant and simply ideologizing, it is patently false. Unemployment was higher in 1983 under Reagan. Check it: http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000

  • aw82

    Not to argue the primary point of this article, BUT…one thing that this misses is the fact that WisDOT by policy includes 3 to 4′ wide paved shoulders on all rural roadway projects, which benefits bicyclists (among other benefits) but is not counted as funding spent on bicycle projects.

  • flyingember

    Self driving cars need less space per vehicle. Removing the human factor means perfect spacing based on number of vehicles. So we need less pavement for the same number of cars as today

  • flyingember

    You’d be surprised. 30mpg for a car versus 10mpg for the bus. And it has way more low efficiency idling at stops over and over, often taking longer routes from A to B than the average driver.

    Diesel is so inefficient and expensive that electric and CNG is replacing it rapidly.

  • Joshua Pabelick

    This is for this month lol if you could read i said within the last year.

  • Joshua Pabelick

    And again there is no need for a rail in Milwaukee which was already turned down or course. Sorry but a rail that goes from Milwaukee to Madison is a waste of time and money. Second unless you honestly believe putting more buses on the road will reduce the amount of cars your whole theory is nonsense. Personally i can tell you even if we doubled the amount of buses out there i still would not take one

  • Joshua Pabelick

    LOL so your argument is expanding public transport means people will give up their cars????

  • Joshua Pabelick

    Depending on which project your referring to there are several issues. The home bridge for example involves raising the height of the bridge overall, the Zoo interchange is building all new bridges/ramps in addition to expanding lanes

  • aw82

    The chart I provided shows monthly unemployment as far back as 1948 (not just for this month). You also said “…we had record unemployment under Obama not more than a year ago” which implies unemployment under Obama has been worse than under past presidents. I simply pointed out that is not true.

    Anyway, shame on me. I should have looked at your 1,300 other Disqus comments before trying to engage you in intelligent dialogue because you’re clearly a delusional and misinformed troll. Peace out.

  • Katja

    I’m talking about the I-94 rebuild, the one I originally linked to. 12 years.

    The Hoan Bridge (not home bridge) construction is like a year and a half. That thing seems like it’s always under construction, but c’est la vie. It’s not twelve goddamn years.

  • Joshua Pabelick

    lol look at your chart again Obama had record high UE under his term. Sorry if you can’t handle it but the fact is he will go down as the worst modern day president. Obama is like Bush but more whiny and black

  • Joshua Pabelick

    Unemployment was worse than under Bush and Clinton so ya. Defend him if you want but the man set records for the amount of people on UE

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