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Beltline traffic

As motorists flood the Beltline during rush hour, traffic slows to a crawl. 

The state is “reinvigorating” a study of potential improvements to the Madison Beltline that had largely taken a backseat under the previous administration, according to Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the Department of Transportation.

In a Monday interview with the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, Secretary-designee Craig Thompson, who has not yet been confirmed by the GOP Senate, also said he’s confident he would be confirmed if a vote were held today.

Thompson also pitched Evers’ plan to provide a $600 million infusion into roads, bridges and transit — primarily by increasing the gas tax — as vital to shield Wisconsin’s infrastructure from further decay.

Thompson said the department is “getting the (Beltline study) moving again,” casting it as vital to ensure the Madison area continues on a path of robust growth. He said he has spoken with prominent local business owners who said the same.

“They really believe that lack of mobility is the one thing that could cap economic development on the Isthmus in the Madison area,” Thompson said.

The study looks at “ways to increase capacity for existing and future traffic demand” and improving safety issues on stretches of the Beltline where crash rates are significantly above the state average.

Thompson said the study also will look at the possibility of adding dedicated Beltline lanes for transit, such as buses.

Evers’ budget calls for increasing the gas tax by eight cents a gallon, linking future increases to inflation and increasing fees for vehicle titles and heavy trucks. It also would repeal the minimum markup requirement for fuel sales, which proponents say would decrease what motorists pay at the pump.

Without a revenue infusion such as what the tax and fee increases would provide, Thompson said the state’s highways could begin to crumble at a much faster rate.

The share of state highways with pavement in poor or worse condition — which Thompson said is already higher than neighboring states — would increase 50% in the next decade without improvements, he said DOT engineers estimated. With the taxes and fee increases, the share would decrease slightly, Thompson said.

Like Evers’ other picks to lead Cabinet agencies, Thompson has not yet been confirmed by the Republican-held Senate. Cabinet secretaries may serve before confirmation. But not holding a vote gives senators virtual veto power over Evers’ picks, because a vote to reject confirmation removes an acting secretary.

Thompson estimated if a Senate confirmation vote were held today, he’d have support from between 26 and 29 senators, far above the 17-vote majority he would need.

Asked if that estimate were accurate, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t directly respond. But he provided a statement saying some GOP senators have asked him to call a vote to reject Thompson’s confirmation.

Thompson also acknowledged his view has partly shifted on a DOT plan to rebuild a Madison interchange he previously deemed a “monumental waste of taxpayer dollars.”

While director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a group that advocates more spending on roads, bridges and transit, Thompson last year blasted the department’s preferred plan to rebuild the interchange connecting the Madison Beltline and Interstate 39-90. The department’s plan calls for rebuilding the interchange such that the northbound side of I-39-90 narrows, through the core of the interchange, to two lanes.

Thompson said he has become more comfortable with the plan as a near-term fix because he thinks it could later be improved further as part of future upgrades to the Beltline or I-39-90.

“I think it actually makes sense as an interim step,” Thompson said.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. An earlier version misstated the number of votes needed to gain a majority in the state Senate. The correct number is 17.]

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