Two major Dane County highway projects would avoid delays under Gov. Scott Walker’s $6.1 billion proposal for the state’s next transportation budget.
Walker’s 2017-2019 state budget plan, which he introduced Wednesday in a speech to lawmakers, also would eliminate a prevailing wage requirement for workers on state construction projects.
Walker framed his budget as a fiscally responsible plan to refocus transportation spending on maintenance while avoiding gas tax or vehicle fee increases. It comes at the expense of highway projects in and around Milwaukee, which would see a huge funding cut under Walker’s plan.
Moments after he finished speaking, Assembly Republicans, who frequently have clashed with Walker on transportation finance, signaled resistance to that part of the governor’s plan.
“It seems like it needs a lot of improvement,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. Vos said Assembly Republicans, counter to Walker, will consider increasing gas taxes or vehicle fees.
As expected, Walker’s budget largely matches the funding request submitted in September by the Department of Transportation. A key difference is Walker’s budget provides $107 million to keep construction going on two highway projects that would have been delayed under a funding cut in the DOT request.
One is the Verona Road expansion project on and around its intersection with McKee Road, a project Madison-area advocates view as critical for fast-growing southwest Dane County. That project would’ve faced a two-year delay under the DOT request. The other project is a State Highway 15 expansion in Outagamie County that would have incurred a one-year delay under the DOT request.
Not all highway projects would stay on track. So-called “southeast Wisconsin freeway megaprojects,” including work on I-94 in and around Milwaukee, would get a funding cut of nearly $293 million from the previous budget under Walker’s plan.
Walker’s budget also would phase out the prevailing wage requirement for state-funded construction projects.
Prevailing wage requires workers to be paid a base wage depending on their trade and region of the state. In the last budget, lawmakers and the governor eliminated the requirement for projects funded by local units of government.
The change is “expected to increase efficiencies and reduce costs on state construction projects,” according to a budget summary provided by Walker’s office. The document does not include an estimate of how much would be saved. In August, Assembly Republicans published a report saying the DOT estimates it would create an average savings of 1 percent on project costs.
Walker’s budget plan boosts funding for maintenance of state highways and for local roads and bridges. It calls for $500 million in transportation borrowing, down from $850 million in the last state budget.
The budget announcement follows last month’s release of a sharply critical state audit of the DOT. It found the department dramatically underestimated the cost of major highway projects by failing to account for inflation and other factors, with costs on 16 projects ballooning by more than $3 billion compared to when lawmakers approved them.
An expansion of U.S. Interstate 39-90 in Dane and Rock counties would not be delayed under Walker’s budget, as was the case in the DOT request. That excludes rebuilding the I-39-90 interchange with the Madison Beltline. The Wisconsin State Journal reported last week that the DOT had quietly separated plans to rebuild and realign the interchange from the larger I-39-90 project, of which it originally was part.
For months, Assembly Republican leaders have said new revenues — likely by increasing the gas tax or vehicle fees — should be considered to resolve a longstanding imbalance in the state’s transportation ledger.
Walker has said he will not increase any taxes or fees without a corresponding decrease elsewhere in the state budget.
But Walker’s budget proposal takes a different tack to boost transportation funding over the long term. It calls for transferring proceeds from a petroleum inspection fee into the state transportation fund, which would provide an additional $107 million for roads, bridges and transit in the 2019-2021 budget.