February 9, 2017 2:50 PM, EST

Wisconsin Gov.’s Budget Would Keep Highway Projects on Track


Ongoing major highway projects outside southeast Wisconsin, including two in Dane County, 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 Feb. 8 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 state transportation spending on road maintenance.

But Assembly Republicans, who frequently have clashed with Walker in recent months on how to finance the state's transportation network over the long term, signaled resistance to the Republican governor's plan moments after he finished speaking.

Speaker Robin Vos, (R-Rochester), said Assembly Republicans will consider increasing the gasoline tax or vehicle fees, which Walker emphatically noted his plan avoids.

"It seems like it needs a lot of improvement," Vos said of Walker's transportation budget.

RELATED: Wisconsin's transportation-funding problem: possible solutions, and how we got here

As expected, Walker's budget largely matches the funding request submitted by his Department of Transportation in September. A key difference is that his budget provides an additional $107 million to keep construction going on two projects that would have been delayed under the DOT request.

One of the projects is the Verona Road expansion on and around its intersection with McKee Road — a project viewed as critical for the fast-growing southwestern part of Dane County. That project would remain on track for completion in 2019, compared with a 2021 completion date under the DOT request. The other project is a state Highway 15 expansion in Outagamie County, which would have incurred a one-year delay under the DOT plan.

The additional money for projects in Dane County and the Fox Valley comes at the expense of massive projects on Interstate 94 in and around the Milwaukee area, which would get a huge funding cut under Walker's plan.

RELATED: Critical Wisconsin DOT audit finds highway project costs underestimated by $3 billion

Walker's budget also would phase out the prevailing wage requirement for state-funded projects, a proposal sure to draw praise from the Legislature's most staunch fiscal conservatives.

Prevailing wage requires workers on public construction projects to be paid a base wage depending on their trade and region of the state. In the previous budget, lawmakers and the governor eliminated that requirement only 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% on project costs.

Walker's budget plan also boosts funding for maintenance of state highways and transportation funding for local units of government. It calls for $500 million in transportation borrowing, down from $850 million in the previous state budget.

The budget announcement follows the release of a sharply critical state audit of DOT in January. 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 since lawmakers approved them.

An expansion of Interstate 39/90 in Dane and Rock counties would remain on track for completion under Walker's budget, as it did in the DOT budget request. However, that excludes rebuilding the I-39/90 interchange with the Madison Beltline. The Wisconsin State Journal reported in early February that the DOT has quietly separated plans to rebuild and realign the interchange from the larger I-39/90 project, of which it originally was part.

The absence of highway project delays outside southeast Wisconsin and the reduced level of borrowing in Walker's budget could diffuse opposition from some of his legislative critics, including Assembly Republican leaders, who have said new revenues — likely by increasing the gas tax or vehicle fees — should be considered to bring the state transportation's ledger into balance.

Walker's budget holds the line on gasoline taxes and vehicle fees. He 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 step to add new revenue for transportation over the long term. It calls for accelerating transfers of revenue from a state petroleum inspection fee into the state transportation fund. The plan would provide an additional $107 million for roads, bridges and transit in the 2019-2021 budget.