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Road construction, State Journal generic file photo

Traffic weaves through a construction zone on Verona Road near the Beltline Highway in Madison in this 2014 file photo.

Madison transportation officials said Monday the city is missing money it should have received last year under a federal grant program, a complaint Democrats are leveraging to attack Gov. Scott Walker's record on road funding and management of the state Department of Transportation. 

The city says it is missing about $6.78 million in federal funding it should have received last year under a federal grant program for municipalities. A Green Bay television station reported last week that Appleton and Green Bay are also missing out on about $3 million in funding under the program, in which federal funds have typically been distributed to municipalities in 5-year cycles by the state DOT.

Bill Schaefer, the transportation planning manager for the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board, said he has been asking the state DOT for months to explain why the city did not receive money it was allotted for last year. He has also asked the Federal Highway Administration to look into the issue, according to emails. 

Last year, the state notified municipalities that it was considering changes to the program and as such did not give them their annual share of state funds, or tell cities how much money to expect from the federal government, Schaefer said. This year, the state said it decided not to make changes and gave cities their annual grant but did not explain what happened to the previous year's grant, he said.

"Where did the money go? What projects did it go for? Did we really just lose a year’s worth of funding? That isn't legal," Schaefer said. "Logically, it seems we’re being shorted."

The Madison Area Transportation Board is a type of policy-making board, called a metropolitan planning organization, or an MPO. These organizations are required under federal law to represent urban areas with populations over 50,000 people. There are several MPOs in Wisconsin, many of which are asking similar questions, Schaefer said. 

"I think other MPOs are also questioning this, but we're waiting to hear back (from the DOT) for them to explain if we’re wrong, why that’s the case and to actually show us the funding picture going back and (to) demonstrate the calculations," Schaefer said. 

The state DOT said in a statement that no money has been diverted from municipalities in the program, called the Surface Transportation Grant program. The agency attributed the misunderstanding to an accounting change.

"It is untrue that any cut has been made to the Surface Transit Program (STP). The $46.1 million, which has been made available to local governments each year since 2014, was made available in 2018, and will continue," said Christian Schneider, a spokesman for DOT.

"Planning in 2017 was delayed by a year while the state debated whether to fund the program with state or federal funds. Thus, when it was restarted in 2018, the state decided to go with a four-year planning window rather than the five-year window used the previous two cycles," DOT said in a statement. "In doing so, it may appear that funding was left out of 2018 in the new plan; yet the funds were already covered under the previous plan and were allocated according to that plan."

The Federal Highway Administration did not immediately respond to requests for information Monday afternoon.

Democrats seized on the complaints, arguing that they are a part of a broader pattern of mismanagement at the DOT under Walker. 

"It fits a pattern ... it makes our jobs quite difficult. You need to have some certainty, you need to have transparency," said Tom Nelson, during a press call Monday hosted by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Nelson, the Outagamie County Executive, said his region is suffering under Walker's transportation policies. He cited Walker's about-face on the need to expand Interstate 41 from four to six lanes. 

"This has been one of the top safety issues, it's been one of the top economic issues up here for many years. We were told about three weeks ago that Governor Walker said he was going to study the process of moving this to a four lane to a six lane. Just last week in front of a different audience in Milwaukee, he talked about how we have to focus on a different infrastructure," Nelson said.

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"I think that is incredibly insulting to the intelligence of my constituents," he said. "You can't think that what is said in Appleton is not heard down in Milwaukee and vice versa."

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said failure to adequately fund the state's roads needs rests on Walker. He worked with Republican lawmakers on the budget, many of whom wanted to increase road funding, he said, but didn't "because Scott Walker told them not to," Erpenbach said. 

Both Nelson and Erpenbach praised former DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, who has been increasingly outspoken and critical about Walker's comments on road funding and his time at the agency. Gottlieb is the third cabinet secretary to criticize Walker.  

In May, Gottlieb outlined how Walker politicized the state DOT during Gottlieb's tenure from 2011 to 2017, failing to increase funding for several programs, as recommended by a bipartisan task force Walker helped launch. 

“We got to a place where the facts were being ignored in favor of political spin,” Gottlieb said at the time.

Last month, following a state report showing that transportation spending during Walker's tenure had decreased across every major program, Gottlieb said the Walker administration has "engaged in an irresponsible reliance on borrowed money."

In a statement last week, Gottlieb doubled down on his criticism, calling Walker's latest remarks about the influence of special interests "not factually based" and "profoundly disrespectful to the professionals in the private and public sector who are trained to design and build safe and efficient highways for all to use."

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.