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Questionable Highway Projects Escape Budget Scrutiny in Wisconsin

4:30 PM EDT on May 25, 2011

A $125 million "road to nowhere." Another $100+ million for a bypass around a town of 2,711. Welcome to the era of "fiscal austerity" in Gov. Scott Walker's Wisconsin.

A new report from the Public Interest Research Group examines $1.2 billion in proposed highway projects green-lighted by the Walker administration while the state rolls back funding for transit, education and local communities.

The findings indicate that in all his zeal for cutting public spending, Walker has a blind spot for highways. Despite a $3.6 billion budget deficit, Walker's Wisconsin is forging ahead with a fortified highway budget. The Walker administration has proposed a 13 percent increase in highway construction. Meanwhile, $10 million in transit cuts have been proposed, in addition to a reduction in $48 million for maintaining local roads.

Wisconsin is hardly crying out for new road capacity. The state already ranks 13th in the nation on transportation spending per capita, or 24 percent above the national average, the report notes. So it's not clear why highways have garnered such a privileged position in the state budget, said report co-author Bruce Speight.

"This is spending gone wild on questionable projects at a time when we should be prioritizing maintaining our existing infrastructure and transit," he said.

Of the four projects analyzed by WISPIRG, the group found all of them to be justified by outdated data and generally of questionable merit.

I-90 Widening

Wisconsin is planning to widen 45 miles of I-90 south of Madison to the Illinois border from four lanes to six. The project is slated to cost $715 million, but local press reports have put it at as a high as $1.5 billion. PIRG reports that the project was justified using traffic data from 2002. Furthermore, crash data indicate safety problems could be remedied with less expensive interventions at interchanges.

Highway 15

Plans are to widen State Highway 15 for about 11 miles between New London and Greenville. The main impetus for this $125 million project is to bypass the town of Hortonville, (pop. 2,711), report authors say. Furthermore, the current conditions are hardly pressing; WISDOT has rated the current level of service on this road as a "B."

Highway 38

This nine-mile project would widen Highway 38 from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided high-speed highway. The road runs between Racine and Milwaukee in a largely rural area that is spotted with cabbage farms. Report authors found "no obvious rationale" for this $125-million project, dubbing it a "road to nowhere."

Tri-County Freeway Widening

Traffic congestion is being used to justify this $390 million, five-mile highway reconstruction and widening project in Menasha. However, according to PIRG, the environmental analysis on the project indicated the freeway currently experiences "minimal congestion."

Speight said these four projects were approved the state's planning commission in October, before Scott Walker took office. But it's unclear how they've escaped the scrutiny Walker has applied to other state projects. Speight further noted that in every case the state has chosen to pursue the most expensive of the alternatives presented for the projects.

"What’s stunning about this is [Walker] campaigned on eliminating public waste and eliminating potholes," Speight said. "He has proposed a budget that is cutting funding to eliminate potholes and he is potentially wasting $2 billion on unnecessary projects."

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