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Letter: Coalition Warns Against New Highway Megaprojects in State Budget

For Immediate Release

As the legislature takes up the state budget this week, a coalition of consumer, civil rights and environmental organizations urged decisionmakers to prioritize investments in public transportation and local road maintenance, and to reject any new highway expansion projects in Wisconsin’s transportation spending plan, in a letter sent to legislators today:

 

June 25, 2019

Dear Majority Leader Fitzgerald and Speaker Vos,

As you continue deliberations over the 2019-21 transportation budget, we respectfully urge you to reject any allocations for new highway expansions in the Highway Majors and Southeast Wisconsin Megaprojects programs, including the expansion of I-94 East-West in Milwaukee. We welcome the Evers administration’s and Legislature’s efforts to improve local infrastructure through the upcoming transportation budget. We encourage you to complement support for local road repair by increasing investment in the state’s public transit systems by at least $36 million compared to the last biennial budget.

We believe decisionmakers should develop a plan to meet Wisconsinites’ transportation needs statewide – especially providing effective and affordable mobility to all, in rural, suburban and urban districts, and repairing existing roads and bridges – rather than greenlight costly, harmful new highway projects. 

Our state’s struggling transportation system is in part the result of misplaced spending priorities that put a disproportionate focus on new and expanded highway infrastructure, at the expense of other critical priorities. From 1998 to 2013, spending on big-ticket highway projects increased by 50 percent, while investment in growing multimodal and maintenance needs has languished.[1] 

Expanding highways to reduce congestion simply does not work in the long term.[2] Instead, such projects absorb scarce resources that could be put to use addressing more urgent transportation needs. Highway expansions also saddle future generations with the bills for infrastructure that they did not ask for, nor will likely use: Nearly twenty percent of our transportation budget today goes to repay debt taken on to pay for questionable megaprojects.[3]

The undersigned organizations have long opposed the expansion of I-94 East-West in Milwaukee. Governor Walker and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) rightly withdrew their support for the project in 2017, and we would strongly object to any renewed effort to revive this wasteful, harmful expansion. A renewed attempt at widening 3.5 miles of this interstate would ultimately come at a cost of more than a billion dollars to taxpayers and occur against the wishes of many community members.

The Walker administration explained its decision to cancel this project in 2017 by pointing to the absence of a clear funding plan and acknowledged that the expansion was likely to face protracted legal challenges.[4] Governor Walker later questioned the need to continue expanding the state’s freeways given Wisconsinites’ changing transportation preferences, particularly among young people.[5] In 2014, Wisconsin settled a lawsuit brought by MICAH and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, which challenged the Zoo Interchange reconstruction plan for failing to include and address public transportation.

An increasing number of Wisconsinites rely on public transportation to connect to work, school, the doctor’s office, and social activities in their communities. Public transit also brings with it increased economic activity and potential for development. We urge you to increase investment in public transportation by at least $36 million this biennium. Coupled with the Joint Committee on Finance’s proposed investment in maintaining the state’s local roads, these funds would contribute significantly to improving Wisconsin’s transportation system and produce benefits for Wisconsinites statewide.

Continuing to expand Wisconsin’s highways, on the other hand – whether by resurrecting the expansion of I-94 East-West rightly cancelled by Governor Walker, or enumerating the costly expansions of I-41 and I-43 as proposed by JFC – will only drive our state deeper into debt, divert funds from other important infrastructure investments, and worsen congestion by drawing more cars to the road.

We strongly urge you not to allocate any taxpayer dollars to new highway expansions in the biennial budget. Instead, please direct funds to where they are truly needed: improving the state’s public transportation systems and maintaining existing local roads. 

Sincerely,

Peter Skopec, Director, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG)

Deb Nemeth, Executive Director, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin

Elizabeth Ward, Conservation Programs Coordinator, Sierra Club - Wisconsin Chapter

Chris Ott, Executive Director, ACLU of Wisconsin

Rev. Willie E. Brisco, President, WISDOM

Dennis Grzezinski, Law Office of Dennis M Grzezinski

     

[1] WISPIRG Foundation and Frontier Group, Fork in the Road: Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities?, 2014.

[2] See, for example, Susan Handy, University of California, Davis, “Increasing Highway Capacity Unlikely to Relieve Traffic Congestion,” October 2015.

[3]Wisconsin DOT, Transportation Budget Trends: 2018-19, 2018.

[4] Patrick Marley, Bill Glauber and Don Behm, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Wisconsin abandons I-94 east-west project in Milwaukee County for lack of funds,” October 4, 2017.

[5] Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggests highways don't need more lanes when they are rebuilt,” September 4, 2018.

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