Funding concerns linger on I-90/39 widening project
JANESVILLE — While the fine print in Gov. Scott Walker's budget won't be known until tonight, supporters of widening Interstate 90/39 are confident the governor's budget will adequately fund the project until 2015.
But those same supporters are more concerned about the state's 2015-17 budget, the transportation portion of which is expected to pay for a substantial portion of the project that would widen the Interstate to three or four lanes in each direction between the state line and the Beltline in Madison.
"That's when most of the real work will be done," said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.
How much money Walker will target for the project in the next two years is unknown.
When asked Tuesday how much money the state Department of Transportation requested last fall for the Interstate 90/39 project, a spokesman said the department would provide the information after Walker's budget address tonight.
In January, the Janesville City Council supported a resolution urging that Walker retain funding for the Interstate project in his 2013-15 budget. The resolution noted that the transportation department recommended funding reductions for major highway programs and no new borrowing. It also suggested that a delay of one or two years was likely for the local project.
Cullen said he assumed Walker would budget approximately $70 million for the Interstate project over the next two years.
While specifics have been scarce, Walker is expected to announce that his transportation budget for the two years will be $6.4 billion, including $824 million in new state funds.
Last week, he dropped a few highlights, the most notable of which centered on projects involving the Zoo Interchange and Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee.
The I-90/39 project was not mentioned in Walker's highlight package, but earlier this month he told The Gazette there likely wouldn't be any budget surprises in regards to the project.
According to a transportation department report earlier this month, the total cost of the widening project is estimated at more than $835 million. Its components include $70 million in design costs, $43 million for real estate acquisition and $722 million for construction.
Having already spent $13 million, the department anticipates spending $54 million this year, $15 million next year and $56 million for calendar year 2015, which straddles two fiscal years and two budgets.
After 2015, spending would grow to an average of nearly $170 million each year through the project's anticipated completion in 2019, according to the report.
The growing expenditures associated with heavier construction—coupled with potentially mounting debt—that concerns Cullen, who said Walker intends to borrow $662 million to pay for projects included in his 2013-15 budget.
A Walker spokeswoman last week said the governor's plan would increase transportation funding over 2013-15 by about $500 million. In addition to borrowing $662 million, Walker would boost transportation spending with money from the state account used to pay for schools, health care for the poor and other programs.
Walker also wants to fund mass transit with money from the state's main account instead of its separate transportation fund, as has happened for years.
A legislative task force created to study transportation funding warned last month that debt service on transportation bonds could consume 25 percent of transportation revenues by 2023.
Cullen and other Democrats have argued that new bonding will grow that debt.
Cullen said one-time money doesn't do anything to structurally patch a deficit in the transportation fund. Instead, he said, the deficit likely would grow for the state's next biennial budget, which would cover 2015-17, significant years in the I-90/39 project.
"People can dispute the size of the gap, but what the governor is doing is filling it now with one-time money," Cullen said. "For a guy who says he never wants to kick the can down the road, he wants to bond for $660 million, then pay for it with $200 million from the sale of power plants, take money from two other funds and use $129 million in general purpose revenue.
"You just can't catch up. If you've got a $500 million deficit now, that deficit could grow to $750 million by 2015-17."
Earlier this year, Cullen was appointed to the panel that has a major say in highway project funding. At the time, he said he would use his seat on the Transportation Projects Commission to promote the Interstate 90/39 widening project.
"Given the budget problems, I have a real concern about the project staying on schedule," he said. "This is a project that has tremendous interest among all Interstate users, not just the people in Rock County.
"I think it will get done, but I'm not sure it will get done on the timetable we think it will."
Material from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was used in this story.