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Critics are panning the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s preferred plan to revamp U.S. Interstate 39/90 at the Madison Beltline, saying it could trigger safety and congestion woes at one of the region’s busiest interchanges.

WisDOT officials counter that the plan is the safest, most functional — and cheapest — option under consideration.

The department recently told federal highway officials it recommends rebuilding the I-39/90 interchange with the Beltline such that the northbound side narrows, through its core section, to two lanes.

The interchange overhaul, set to be completed in 2022, would be the final phase of a $1.2 billion plan to widen the interstate to three lanes each way from Madison to the Illinois state line.

Overhauling the interchange without expanding to three lanes in both directions — which would be the case north and south of the interchange — would crimp the flow of northbound traffic, causing “significant safety concerns,” said Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a group of business, labor and local governments that advocate for more spending on roads, bridges and transit.

“It would be a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars to build a brand-new bottleneck,” Thompson said.

Madison-area officials also lambasted the plan. Mayor Paul Soglin called it “crazy” and said it would cost lives.

“They’re creating another pinch point in a heavily congested area,” Soglin said. “We’ve already got a dangerous, inadequate interchange. Now they’re going to invest all this taxpayer money in a brand-new, dangerous, inadequate interchange.”

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that to maintain Dane County’s economic growth, “we need to keep pace with the infrastructure our businesses rely on and ensure commerce continues to flow to other regions, both south and north of the interchange.”

“The state cannot continue to drag its feet on this,” Brandon said. “Scaling back on critical projects is not the answer.”

Transportation Department spokesman Christian Schneider said in a statement that “WisDOT recommended the alternative that met functional requirements and was safest.”

The DOT recommendation outlined in the document may not be final. DOT has said it expects to release the final environmental analysis for the project early next year.

Sneak peek at DOT plan

The Wisconsin State Journal got a look at the WisDOT plan after obtaining a cost estimate document reviewed by the department and the Federal Highway Administration at a June workshop in Edgerton.

The document says the department’s “preferred alternative recommendation” for the interchange, estimated to cost about $75 million, would widen the southbound interstate to three lanes through the interchange while keeping two on the northbound side.

The plan would save about $14 million compared to the other alternative being considered, which would expand the interstate to three lanes both directions through the interchange. Both alternatives would eliminate a left-lane exit ramp from northbound I-39/90 to the westbound Beltline, replacing it with a right-lane exit.

Schneider’s statement said the two-lane northbound interstate configuration is not projected to cause traffic bottlenecks at least through 2040.

Schneider said the other plan under consideration for the interchange, which would expand both sides of the interstate to three lanes, “yields an estimated increase of three crashes per year, while the two-lane option yields an estimated reduction of eight crashes per year. This is mostly due to the fact that constructing the two-northbound-lane alternative in the core allows for 70 percent fewer vehicles that would be required to change lanes.”

“The two-lane alternative provides efficient and safe service,” Schneider added. “While not a primary factor in the designation, please note this alternative also has a lower cost than the three-lane alternative.”

Thompson and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat who sits on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said the plan fits a broader pattern of a cash-starved DOT making decisions for short-term savings without regard to long-term impacts.

“You save $14 million today; it’s going to cost you $28 million tomorrow,” Erpenbach said.

Of the plan for the northbound stretch of I-39/90 through the interchange, Erpenbach said: “I don’t know how that doesn’t cause backups. I don’t know how that doesn’t cause accidents.”

Since Secretary Dave Ross took the helm of the department in early 2017, it has made a broader push to cancel, suspend or scale back major highway projects or studies.

Walker has touted project

Last year DOT canceled a study of whether to expand I-39/90/94 north of Madison to the Wisconsin Dells. A study of possible improvements to the Madison Beltline effectively was put on hold for months, some of its stakeholders said — though officially, it remains ongoing.

In the Milwaukee area, a plan to rebuild the north leg of the Zoo Interchange has been delayed, even as the rebuilding of the core of the interchange was completed. A plan to expand Interstate 94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges also was sidelined.

Gov. Scott Walker has championed the I-39/90 expansion as vital to serve tourists headed to the Wisconsin Dells and other destinations. Walker’s proposal for the most recent state budget spared the project from budget cuts that delayed other highway projects, and he touted it in 2016 at a press conference in Edgerton, with the under-construction interstate in the background as a photo op.

“This is a priority not just for this region, but really as a gateway to the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said.

But the Beltline interchange portion of the project has been a political hot-button. Ross vowed in early 2017 to pare it back when earlier, far more sweeping plans to rebuild the interchange and surrounding roads soared to $550 million.

Walker also has signaled the state must curtail its road-building ambitions in the face of mounting budget pressure. The biggest sticking point between Walker and Assembly Republicans in crafting the most recent state budget was whether to boost revenue for transportation. Assembly Republicans wanted to do so but Walker and some hard-line conservative lawmakers prevailed, and the budget was enacted last fall without any significant revenue infusion for transportation.

At an event in Milwaukee earlier this month, Walker suggested the state could get by with adding fewer lanes when it rebuilds roads, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

“There are some groups out there that want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state,” Walker said. “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.”

Those comments drew an unusual rebuke from Walker’s former Transportation Secretary, former GOP lawmaker Mark Gottlieb.

Gottlieb released a statement saying Walker has been “increasingly inaccurate” in describing the state highway system. Gottlieb said public transportation engineers, not special-interest groups, are the driving force behind proposals to expand key stretches of state highways seen as congested or unsafe.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.