Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Fed grant for 94 South is nice. But Walker won't say what's getting left behind

I saw this note cross the wires today out of Senator Baldwin’s office, and my eyes perked up a bit.
After advocating for federal investments to improve Wisconsin infrastructure, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin today applauded a $160 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) Grant that will be awarded to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) to assist in funding construction of the I-94 North-South Freeway Project in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee Counties.

In October 2017, Senator Baldwin wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao on the importance of this grant for Southeastern Wisconsin in supporting our state and local economies, connecting workers to their jobs and facilitating the transportation of goods throughout the region.

“Maintaining our transportation infrastructure is crucial to economic growth in Wisconsin. That’s why I’m proud to work across party lines to secure needed funding for our state’s infrastructure,” said Senator Baldwin. “This investment will ensure that the I-94 freeway can continue to play a vital role in helping manufacturers and small businesses transport their products to the markets they serve, connecting workers to job opportunities and strengthening our Made in Wisconsin economy.
Within an hour, Governor Walker’s office was out with their own release saying that these gifts from DC would allow for great progress in fixing the state’s roads and highways.
“Our plan is to invest in more highway projects, nearly 50 more local bridge projects, and complete the I-94 North-South project years ahead of schedule with this funding,” Governor Walker said. “This is great news for Wisconsin. Not only are we keeping projects on time, we’re actually going to be able to do more projects across the state and get them done faster.”...

The record-setting federal grant for Wisconsin will open all lanes to traffic by Memorial Day weekend of 2020 with full completion by 2021, 11 years ahead of schedule. The I-94 North-South expansion project began in 2008 and stretches 36 miles from the city of Milwaukee past the Wisconsin/Illinois state line. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation applied for this grant in October 2017.

[Wisconsin also received] $67.4 million in supplemental highway funds and redistribution funds, $30 million of which is planned by WisDOT to fund 49 more local bridge projects throughout the state.
Well, I guess pork from DC isn’t so bad for you these days, is it Scotty?

It’s important to go back to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s summary of the Fox-con bill, to see how the state money set aside as part of that package needed this grant in order to be freed up.
The Act authorizes $252,400,000 in general fund-supported, general obligation bonds, which may be used for the I-94 North-South corridor project in the southeast Wisconsin freeway megaprojects program. The Act creates a general fund-supported, sum sufficient appropriation that would pay any debt service associated with the issuance of these bonds and specifies that the Department of Transportation (DOT) may not expend the proceeds from the bonds authorized under this provision unless the state receives an award of federal moneys for the I-94 North-South corridor project.
Well, that certainly seems to be satisfied from today’s announcement.

There was originally a second part to paying for I-94 by giving the Joint Finance Committee the ability to hold a hearing and/or keep those funds from being released. But Walker issued a partial veto that conveniently keeps Joint Finance from potentially having to talk about whether this $160 million is enough to get I-94 South done by 2021, or other DOT projects that will have to be delayed in order to get it done in 3 years. It sure seems like we could use that discussion because this grant award adds more questions than it answers.

The Walker Administration said in its grant application that it needed $246 million from the Feds to finish the I-94 project by 2021, and we didn’t get that. Walker is still claiming that the project will be done at that time, but the leader of the Road Builders called BS on that claim, and demanded more info on the DOT’s plans.
Craig Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, said he was pleased the state was getting more money for I-94, but noted the project is behind schedule.

"To claim that this is 11 years ahead of schedule is simply not true," he said.

Thompson also said his organization wants to find out more about how the state will fund the freeway work because Wisconsin did not get all the money it sought.

"Where that other (money) is going to come from is a great question — and how it impacts other projects around the state," he said.
And the Fox-con bill gives a reason why this throws funding for the I-94 project and others up in the air. Because says now that this grant has been approved, it largely leaves it up to the DOT (and Governor’s) discretion how the rest will be paid for.
Although the administration indicates that these bonds could be used as the state match for a potential federal "FASTLANE" ("INFRA") grant that would fund remaining work on the I-94 North-South corridor project, any award of federal moneys for this project, in the 2017-19 biennium or beyond, could provide DOT with the authority to use these bond proceeds. For instance, if the state did not receive a "FASTLANE" grant, but instead received some amount of federal redistribution aid for this project, it is possible that the receipt of the additional aid could be interpreted as satisfying the criteria required to expend the bond proceeds.
You may remember that the Walker Administration asked last year for $341 million in money left over from completed/abandoned projects from the US DOT in the form of “redistribution aid.” I ripped the hell out of this plan at the time, as this would be 10 times the amount that the state usually gets in a given year, and it underscored the desperate situation that Walker and WisGOP had put the state in by failing to generate enough money to fix the roads.

Well, we got twice what we usually get in redistribution funds, but it was still less than what we allegedly needed to finish to I-94 South, and Walker’s press release indicated that some of those redistribution funds would go to other projects and needs. And the Walker folks aren’t saying how they’ll fill this gap.
Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Walker, said other projects won’t be sidetracked because the state got less than it hoped from the federal grant. Evenson wrote that the state plans to re-allocate existing transportation cash “that will allow funds to be available for the (project) while not delaying any other road projects in the state.”

Walker, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said the gap will be partly covered by other funding sources identified by the Department of Transportation.
Translation - "We don't have a clue how we're paying for the rest of this and we don't want to admit other projects in the state will be worked on as a result of concentrating on I-94 South near Foxconn." They're just praying some other Magic Dollars come along to bail them out, or that no other problems crop up between now and November that expose them even further on the roads issue.

What it seems like to me is (WARNING- hackneyed sports analogy coming) that the Walker Administration tried for a Hail Mary in the form of getting all of their INFRA and redistribution requests to be filled. Well, the pass got completed, but the receiver only got to the 10-yard line, so there was no score on the play. Now the half is over, and so the overall game really hasn't changed.

While the federal money is nice and helps for the short-term, it's not enough on its own to get I-94 done, and we deserve to know what else in the state is going to be delayed because all of this money will be sent to the Foxconn-sin region. And we deserve to know how far short our state funding will fall in meeting the needs of the rest of the state, so we can stop the Walker/WisGOP habit of kicking the can further down the road and watching more Scott-holes pop up with each year.


  1. A good plan for year to year funding of DOT needs should be part of the Dem campaign. Whomever we decide to run, I want to hear actual ideas.

    I'm not looking to have the streets paved with gold, but yearly shortfalls and debt accumulation aren't a long term solution.

    I fear we're seeing yet another thrust of the "defund it, let it break down, privatize it" routine which may lead Wisconsin to toll roads.

  2. Worth noting, Dems on the Joint Finance Committee wrote a letter on Friday asking for a hearing on this grant and the I-94 project around Foxconn, as well as the effect this may have on other road projects in the state. As mentioned above, this would have happened automatically under the original Fox-con bill, but Walker vetoed that provision to try to bury the issue.

    Now do I think JFC Co-Chairs Alberta Darling and John Nygren will call that hearing? HELL NO! Do you think any Republican wants to talk about their failures in road funding for the next 5 months if they don't have to?

    Which is exactly why Dems should keep pushing on the issue and make the media have to talk about it, and put the spotlight on the GOP for NOT talking about it.

    1. Well, color me surprised. Darling and Nygren are going to hold a Joint Finance meeting on Thursday to go over the new federal money, and how the DOT budget looks as a result.

      I'll be interested in seeing what those plans are. Looks like $30 mil are going toward bridge repair, which I think is great. But it also means that there still is that $86 million hole for 94 South.