I've never been a big fan of building wider and wider superhighways. All they do is fill up again in a couple of years with yet bigger SUVs and longer and heavier trucks to create eight lanes of backups instead of four.
It would be better to use the money to improve and maintain the highways we already have — something that's been sorely lacking in Wisconsin in recent years — and improve public transportation so travelers have incentives to keep their cars off the roads.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin's transportation gurus have decided to go the route of wider expressways. Huge expansions of I-94 and I-39/90 are currently underway at a cost that has siphoned so much from maintenance funds that the state is now considered to have some of the worst roads in the country.
And let's not forget how then-new Gov. Scott Walker killed expanding passenger train service — paid for with federal stimulus money, not by the state — that could have taken at least a few vehicles off the Madison-to-Chicago and Milwaukee-to-Chicago interstates.
That was one of the dumbest moves among many that Walker has made during his years in office. But an even dumber one is a plan being bandied about to skimp on a new interchange at the I-39/90 intersection with the South Beltline, just east of Highway 51.
After committing more than a billion dollars to widen to six lanes the interstate between Madison and the Illinois line — a distance of more than 45 miles — the state now wants to save about $14 million by keeping the northbound lanes at the interchange at two lanes.
Once traffic gets through the interchange, the interstate again widens to three lanes in each direction all the way to Portage, where I-39 breaks off to the north and I-90 continues to La Crosse and the co-joined I-94 to Minneapolis.
Few can believe that the state Department of Transportation would back a plan that would suddenly narrow three lanes of traffic to two at one of the state's busiest interchanges, especially after spending a billion dollars on making the interstate even more attractive to motor vehicles.
The State Journal reported a couple of Sundays ago that the tourism industry, chambers of commerce and a coalition of business, labor and local governments are aghast at the idea.
"It would be a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars to build a brand-new bottleneck," said Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.
The DOT, which recommended the two-lane alternative to federal highway officials, said that its proposal wouldn't cause much of a problem until about 2040. That prompted state Sen. Jon Erpenbach to point out that saving $14 million now on what will certainly become a choke point will cost $28 million by then.
In other words, if you've already decided to spend the money on a superhighway why pinch pennies, particularly at an interchange that serves the state's second-largest city and its capital?
That's what you get when you play politics with the state's transportation dollars, something that Scott Walker has been guilty of during both his terms. As DOT revenues dropped because of several factors, including more efficient cars and trucks, Walker has refused to consider a gas tax increase or any other method to raise dollars. He's been so obsessed with his no-tax-increase pledge to the likes of Grover Norquist (the guy who wants to drown government in a bathtub) that even a few pennies' hike at the gas pump is out of the question unless you cut somewhere else — education, for example?
With the money that's left, Walker has pushed building bigger roads while being frugal with funds to fix existing ones. Meanwhile, the state continues to get dinged on the condition of its streets and highways. Some local governments have resorted to tearing up dilapidated asphalt highways and returning to gravel roads.
It's a sad condition for any state and there's no better example of how sad than when you resort to building a bottleneck at a major highway interchange.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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