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Business leaders: Bring back Milwaukee’s I-94 east-west project

April 5, 2017

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Merging into a crowded, multi-lane debate, some of Wisconsin’s top businesses Tuesday called for restoring the I-94 east-west project, saying it was critical to the region’s economy.

The coalition that includes MillerCoors, Palermo’s Pizza and Marquette University wrote Tuesday to the GOP co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee and asked them to undo Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to halt planning work on the massive project.

The interstate section has nearly 200,000 jobs in the two miles around it, the groups said in their letter, which comes just ahead of a hearing that the Joint Finance Committee is holding at State Fair Park on Wednesday.

“The east-west corridor is the gateway for the products and venues that make our region vibrant and healthy. The beer, pizza, motorcycles and steel that the rest of the world wants begin their journey along this corridor. Millions heading each year to visit Summerfest, the Brewers, Bucks, State Fair or downtown Milwaukee travel this vitally important corridor,” the business leaders wrote.

The fight over the project is part of a larger and even more contentious debate over whether to raise gas taxes or vehicle fees to close a long-term shortfall in the state’s road fund or to hold the line on taxes and fees, as the governor has advocated.

Walker’s two-year budget proposal would drop plans to work on the 3.5-mile portion of I-94 in Milwaukee between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges. That would free $31 million over the next two years for long-delayed work on the section of I-94 south of Milwaukee.

But the decision has drawn criticism from Milwaukee business leaders who question the wisdom of upgrading the Marquette and Zoo interchanges but leaving a “choke point” of aging highway between them.

The letter to Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) was signed by leaders of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the Waukesha County Business Alliance, the Forest County Potawatomi, Realtors and labor groups.

Those signing the letter included major Republican supporters like Ted Kellner, the chairman of investment firm Fiduciary Management, who has donated more than $160,000 to Walker’s campaigns since 2005 and more than $25,000 to Darling’s.

The issue reaches beyond Milwaukee, said Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

“A lot of regional and national freight goes through the corridor, so we think for economic development in our state and our region in general, it’s a very, very important project,” said Kelley, who also signed the letter.

The Milwaukee area is already included on the American Transportation Research Institute’s list of the nation’s top 100 truck bottlenecks, with the I-94/I-894 interchange checking in at No. 51 on the list.

“Obviously, we are of the opinion that levels of government from federal on down should increase investment in infrastructure projects like this one just because the potential return is so great,” said Sean McNally, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations a trade group based in Alexandria, Va. “It saves time. It saves money. It’s increased efficiency in movement of goods.”

Even if lawmakers find funding for the project, it could face delays. Civil rights and environmental groups last month filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have an expansion of public transit included in the plans to rebuild the section of I-94.

Darling said Tuesday that she hadn’t seen the letter. She said she would like to put the project on track but that finding money to do so “is going to be very, very, very difficult.”

She said Republicans who control the Legislature are searching for ways to find more money for roads but expressed skepticism about most funding options that have been considered. She said that she could not support raising the gas tax and that many other GOP senators are opposed to increasing borrowing.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who also sits on the budget committee, said he wants to make sure the state does not lose any of the money it has put toward the east-west project. A long delay could require engineering work to be redone.

“The question for me on the east-west is how do we make sure the costs already put into it are not going to be negated by delay,” he said.

Kooyenga is working on a package to overhaul the state’s taxes and transportation funding but declined to provide details, saying he expected to release his plan by May 1.

Steve Baas, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said the issue is not a situation of Milwaukee trying to take money away from other parts of the state.

“Our goal isn’t to say, ‘You should take it from somebody else and give it to us,’ ” he said. “This stretch is just one piece of a larger puzzle of finding a sufficient, sustainable way to fund our state’s transportation needs.”

That said, the freeway corridors that run through Milwaukee are crucial to the state, Baas said.

“The bulk of the state’s commercial traffic moves through those corridors,” he said. “When the I-94 corridor sneezes, Wisconsin’s economy gets pneumonia.”

The push to revive the project comes a week after the head of the Wisconsin office of the Federal Highway Administration wrote a letter saying that the agency is “fully supportive of the need to complete this project.”

Opened to traffic in 1961, that section of I-94 “is nearing the end of its useful life,” Michael Davies, the administrator of the Wisconsin office, wrote to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) on March 29.

Patrick Curley, chief of staff to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, was less critical, saying that if it means more funding for local road aid, then nixing the east-west project was “not necessarily a bad thing.”