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Fork in the Road:Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities?
by Tom Van Heeke and Jeff Inglis, Frontier Group; Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation
Wisconsin’s transportation spending priorities are backwards. In recent years, despite ongoing fiscal challenges, the state has spent billions of dollars on highway expansion projects while slashing transit funding and curbing assistance for local road repair.
The decision to spend massive amounts of taxpayer resources on new and expanded highways appears especially out of step at a time when Wisconsinites are driving less than they did a decade ago – and when citizens and local leaders in communities across the state are clamoring for long-overdue investments in road repair, transit systems and infrastructure for bicycling and walking.
Wisconsin’s municipalities are prevented by state law from exercising all their possible options to meet these needs, such as levying local fuel taxes or banding together to form regional transportation authorities. Without state support for local priorities, Wisconsin’s communities are stuck in a transportation funding bind.
The $2.8 billion Wisconsin intends to spend on four unnecessary highway expansion projects could instead provide more than half a billion extra dollars in each of the next five state biennial budgets. This money could meet a series of unmet transportation needs, including key transit projects, local road repair, and bicycle and pedestrian projects. Wisconsin faces a choice: continue to shower money on unnecessary highway expansions, or invest in critical projects to repair our existing transportation infrastructure and provide more transport options to citizens around the state.
Wisconsin is spending heavily on highway expansion projects – despite stagnating driving – even as it underfunds a long list of pressing repair and investment needs across Wisconsin and cuts spending on transit and transportation alternatives.
- Wisconsin’s previous two biennial state budgets spent a combined $2.5 billion on major new highway construction.
- Wisconsin spends almost as much money – and sometimes even more money – on building new highways as on fixing existing roads and bridges, despite the fact that 71 percent of Wisconsin’s roads are of “mediocre” or “poor” quality and 1,157 bridges in Wisconsin are “structurally deficient.” In 2011, Wisconsin spent $349 million on highway repairs compared to $544 million on building new or wider highways.
- Between 1998 and 2013, total state transit funding decreased by 2 percent in constant 2011 dollars, while state spending on highway construction rose 50 percent.
- Wisconsin’s lavish spending on expanded highways has come even as the number of miles driven in the state has stagnated. Statewide vehicle-miles traveled peaked in 2004. Meanwhile, bicycle commuting has risen in Milwaukee and transit ridership has increased in a variety of communities, such as Madison and La Crosse.
Figure ES-1. Total Vehicle-Miles Traveled and VMT Per Capita, in Wisconsin, 1973-2013
Wisconsin plans to spend up to $2.8 billion on four particularly wasteful highway expansion projects:
- Expanding Interstate 94 in Milwaukee – The state intends to spend as much as an additional $800 million (above and beyond the cost of repairing the aging highway) to add capacity to Interstate 94, despite the opposition of nearby residents and dropping traffic levels on that stretch of highway.
- Adding lanes to Interstate 90 south of Madison – The plan to widen Interstate 90 from four to six lanes is expected to cost $836 million. However, traffic is growing more slowly on the highway than predicted. Despite official projections of a 29 percent surge in traffic volumes between 2000 and 2010, by 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, traffic volumes had inched up just 1 percent in 12 years.
- Widening State Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth – The state justifies this $128 million project in part by citing future traffic volumes on this rural highway. But the number of vehicles on the highway barely changed between 2008 and 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, calling into question state officials’ predictions of relentless annual increases in traffic through 2035.
- Expanding the Madison Beltline – State officials are studying, and seriously considering, an expansion of Madison’s primary east-west freeway, a project likely to cost $1 billion. While official documents predict that by 2015 traffic will increase all along the 19-mile route, data collected in 2012 show that traffic levels at several locations have not increased as quickly as WisDOT expected.
The money Wisconsin intends to spend on these four highway expansion projects, not to mention the hundreds of millions or more the Wisconsin DOT plans to spend on other highway expansion projects, could comfortably increase state funding for transit, local road repair, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Some of the projects around Wisconsin that require support include:
- Road maintenance – Like communities across Wisconsin, Ashland requires regular investment in local road maintenance to counter the effects of its harsh winters. Simply maintaining the existing conditions of the city’s streets would cost approximately $350,000 annually, while upgrading pavement conditions would cost double that. But state reimbursement cutbacks have led the city of Ashland to reduce road-repair spending to just $150,000 – less than half what is required.
- Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure – Eau Claire has an ambitious vision to become a more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly city by adding on-street bike lanes to all of the city’s primary routes, constructing planned bicycle and pedestrian trails and paths, and building safe crossing structures for cyclists and pedestrians at eight major roadways. Making the vision into reality would cost approximately $41 million.
- Bridge repairs – Four of Milwaukee’s iconic moving bridges require rehabilitation at a cost of $8 million to $13 million each. And less-famous bridges throughout the state are in similarly dire straits. While localities have been hard pressed to support critical bridge work in the face of other local cuts, additional funding would enable them to better address these problems.
- Transit improvements – Transit systems around the state are overdue for investment. For example:
- The Milwaukee County Transit System wants to restore old routes, add new ones, provide more frequent service over a longer span of the day, and limit future fare increases to no more than the rate of inflation. Those goals could be achieved at the cost of $114 million in capital investment and $160 million in annual operating funds.
- The city of Green Bay needs to invest in bus replacement as aging parts of its fleet reach the end of their service lives. The city aims to replace five buses annually at a cost of approximately $2.6 million each year through 2017. Green Bay also hopes to encourage ridership growth by avoiding fare hikes, and even reducing fares to encourage more people to use transit at certain times.
- Madison has a forward-thinking plan to embrace the growing ridership on its popular bus system. Not only does the city aim to grow its fleet of buses and continue to replace aging vehicles, but it is also studying a new bus rapid transit line that would enable faster and better service over a broader area. Together, these investments are projected to require approximately $21 million in annual operating costs and as much as $262 million in up-front capital.
For about 40 percent of what is being spent just on the four highway projects highlighted in this report, Wisconsin could make major progress in other transportation funding areas over the next decade, accomplishing all the proposals made in 2013 by the bipartisan Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission. (See Tables ES-1 and ES-2, and Figure ES-2.)
Figure ES-2. Comparing Wisconsin’s Options: Highway Expansion or Investment in Road Repair, Transit and Bicycle-Pedestrian Projects
Wisconsin has its transportation priorities backwards. Rather than spend $2.8 billion on a handful of unnecessary highway expansions, the state should invest in areas it has shortchanged in recent years and move toward the balanced 21st century transportation system Wisconsin needs. To ensure that Wisconsinites’ tax dollars are spent wisely, decision makers should:
- Reassess demand for highway expansion projects, using up-to-date traffic growth projections for proposed projects. State officials should scale back or cancel projects that are no longer justified, as they did in the case of State Highway 38 in Caledonia.
- Adopt a “fix it first” approach to the state’s highway infrastructure by addressing pressing road maintenance needs across Wisconsin.
- Restore and increase state transportation fund spending on public transportation, local road repair, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, addressing Wisconsin’s 21st century transportation needs.
- Empower municipalities to establish Regional Transportation Authorities with the ability to raise revenue to support local transit investments.
 This figure reflects the additional cost beyond rehabilitating the existing highway, which would cost $370 million. Wisconsin Department of Transportation, I-94 East-West Corridor, Draft Environmental Impact Statement, February 2014.