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Walker and transportation

Federal Highway Administrator Mike Davies, left, and Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Dave Ross, right, join Gov. Scott Walker in Milton Tuesday to announce that a portion of the Interstate 90/39 project will be expedited.

MILTON — In the midst of ongoing criticism of his transportation record, Gov. Scott Walker doubled down Tuesday, highlighting savings he says the state will see after finishing a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 39/90 one year early.

Walker also affirmed that the savings, along with extra money in his next budget, will cover a 50 percent increase in funding to county road programs he announced in La Crosse earlier in the week.

The state will save about $70 million by finishing a portion of Interstate 39/90 from Janesville to Edgerton in July 2020, Walker said. The entire interstate expansion project is 45 miles and will reconstruct the interstate in both directions from four to six lanes. Moving up a piece of the project will have a “cascading effect” to fund other transportation projects in the state.

Walker announced the update at a rest stop along the interstate in Milton, flanked by Transportation Secretary Dave Ross and Mike Davies, the federal highway commissioner in Wisconsin, both of whom heralded Walker’s vision and his “comprehensive strategy for transportation” in the state.

“The partnership we have in this state is amazing,” said Davies. “We are making an incredible difference in transportation in this state.”

Walker’s latest comments come as his transportation record and spending priorities have been criticized by Democrats, local transportation leaders and his former transportation chief, Republican Mark Gottlieb. Gottlieb has maintained since May that Walker is being disingenuous and dishonest in his assessment of the state’s road conditions and whether they are being adequately funded.

Walker shrugged off Gottlieb’s latest comments Tuesday, noting that in his cabinet he was “not afraid to have people of different views.” He said Gottlieb had a different view in advocating for an increase in the gas tax.

Last week, a national report created with data from the state Department of Transportation and funded by road building interests found that more than half of the state’s major roads were in poor condition.

Without specifically naming the TRIP report, Walker flatly denied its findings and said that they were bought by special interests.

“I fundamentally disagree with the reports that many allude to, reports paid for by the special interests that are running ads attacking us on transportation,” he said. “If the media is now using reports that are paid for by groups as the basis of their information, than maybe I should go out and create a group and pay for my own studies."

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Walker reiterated that he does not favor a gas tax increase without a corresponding tax cut elsewhere. He said that he will fund increases to counties and other local road programs through the budget by not directing any more funds to the Milwaukee area highways.

“These are just more examples of how we’re doing that without raising the tax burden,” he said. “With our budget, we’ve done it before. We have the budget to be able to do that.”

Contrary to concerns from some Republican lawmakers, Democrats and analyses from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Walker said the state’s transportation fund is growing and said concerns that there is not enough money to fund the projects the state needs is “fundamentally not true.”

“There is growth,” he said, noting that there may not be the kind of growth special interests want.

“For some of the special interest groups who are funding the attack ads who want us to spend billions of dollars on new interchanges in the Milwaukee area, we are not going to do that,” he said.

Walker said he is meeting with local transportation officials in the next couple of weeks to discuss how the funding increases would happen and how it would affect the transportation budget overall.

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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.