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Interstate 94 construction lanes

Lanes have been added to Interstate 94 north and southbound to accommodate increasing traffic, as recommended by an environmental impact study. Such studies are conducted by the state and approved by the federal government. 

Two of Wisconsin’s busiest interstates should be expanded with more lanes to keep drivers safe in increasing traffic, according to two state studies, challenging comments Gov. Scott Walker made this week on the state’s transportation needs.

At a Rotary Club meeting in Milwaukee Tuesday, Walker said there were groups that “want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state."

He added: "I actually think we should be fixing and maintaining our infrastructure. I don't know that we need bigger and better and broader right now when we have a changing transportation system," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Walker’s comments strike at the cornerstone of an ongoing dispute among Republican lawmakers and come as Democrats aim to make transportation funding a marquee election issue. Democrats and some Republicans argue Walker has not adequately funded or responsibly maintained the state’s highways, which several studies and bipartisan commissions have shown are facing increasing traffic with limited road space.

“In 2018, WisDOT put more dollars into highway and bridge projects than ever before,” Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg reiterated in an email Thursday. “The state also invested the largest amount into local road and bridge aids in the last 20 years.”

Figures reported by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau and Walker’s Department of Transportation tell a different story. The DOT affirmed that funding during Walker’s tenure has decreased in a budget report that was released last month.

Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association said Walker’s suggestion that special interests are fueling roadway expansions is “absolutely not factual.”

“In terms of projects and who picks them, that is purely up to the professionals at places like the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. You have professionals at counties and towns and cities who make decisions based on an analysis of their systems,” Goss said. “We do not work with the department on ‘do this project, do this project.’ That’s, quite frankly, ridiculous.”

Two environmental impact studies conducted by the state for the Interstate 39/90 Beltline interchange and Interstate 94 north and southbound, both approved by the federal government, show that bigger, wider interchanges are indeed needed to keep highways safe and mitigate growing traffic.

In the Beltline study, officials recommended that additional lanes be added as traffic steadily increases on the highway through 2030.

“In order to maintain acceptable operations on the interstate, a six-lane freeway is necessary,” according to the study, which anticipated that improvements would start in 2012. The project has since been delayed.

The study also highlighted crash rates for the highway, noting that crashes for the U.S. Highway 12 interchange was the highest statewide between 2000 and 2005. During that time frame, there were an average of 608 crashes per year between the Illinois state line and Madison. Of those crashes, 227 resulted in injuries and five were fatal.

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If the corridor was not widened, it would not be able to handle traffic, which would cause “substantial backups along the freeway and overloading of other roadways in the area,” according to the study.

As traffic builds on highways, accidents often increase, too. In the case of Interstate 94 north and southbound, there were 2.5 accidents per day from 2000 through 2004, according to its environmental impact study. Of the nearly 1,500 accidents that occurred during those years, 11 were fatal, according to the report.

Lanes are being added to expand Interstate 94 north and southbound, which state officials recommended in their study of the corridor.

Fixing the highway without expanding it or altering it in any way, called “replace-in-kind” is an approach the Department of Transportation has adopted for bridges and Walker has endorsed in some cases. For I-94 that approach would not be “considered a reasonable course of action” according to the study.

Following the recommendations of state studies and taking a holistic approach to expand highways is far better for the taxpayer at the outset of a project, rather than doing minimal improvements having to redo or add on to them later, said Goss.

Hasenberg said Walker has “has made it clear that safety and maintenance of our transportation system is a top priority.”

“The governor's comments were about delivering transportation projects that are safe and provide what is necessary in the most efficient way possible,” she said.

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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.