New Report: Unneeded Wisconsin Highway Expansions Will Waste Billions That Should Be Spent on Badly Needed Local Road Repairs, Other Transportation Statewide

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WISPIRG Foundation

Madison, WI – A new WISPIRG Foundation report offers a simple, common-sense way to reform transportation spending in Wisconsin.  The state is currently slated to spend nearly $3 billion on four unneeded highway expansion projects, such as the double decker expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee.  Meanwhile, local transportation infrastructure is in disrepair.  We could implement all the recommendations of the 2013 bi-partisan Transportation Policy and Finance Commission for local road repair, transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and the rehabilitation of state-owned roads, for the next 10 years, for just over $1 billion of those highway expansion funds.  

The report, Fork in the Road: Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities?, makes clear the choice before state leaders – either spend taxpayer dollars on these highly questionable highway expansion projects, or invest in urgent and underfunded local and state-owned road repair and other 21st century priorities.  

“Unneeded highway expansion will divert billions of dollars away from the repair of existing local roads and other critical local transportation infrastructure all over Wisconsin,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation Director.  “It’s time for state leaders to make responsible transportation decisions. Sure, politicians like ribbon cuttings, but rather than squander tax dollars on overbuilding highways, let’s prioritize the repair and maintenance of our existing infrastructure and the transit and bike improvements that we need to compete in the 21st century.”

Statewide, local roads are in disrepair and transit systems struggle to meet local needs.  Even for highways, road maintenance is underfunded, and its funding has grown more slowly, compared to new highway construction.  In some years, such as 2006 and 2011, Wisconsin spent more on new construction than on highway repairs.  The American Society of Civil Engineers rates 71 percent of Wisconsin’s roads as “mediocre” or “poor” quality.  Additionally, 1,157 bridges in Wisconsin—approximately 8 percent of the total—are “structurally deficient.” 

While property tax dollars contribute to local transportation, including the repair of potholes and transit, state assistance is essential to meet local needs.  State-imposed property tax levy limits prevent local governments from fully meeting these local needs.  Without state support, Wisconsin communities are stuck in a transportation funding bind.  The report highlights some of the specific maintenance needs, transit plans, and bicycle and pedestrian projects funding could support, including Madison’s plan to increase ridership on its popular bus system, and the ben¬efits they would deliver for communities across Wisconsin.  

“Madison’s transit ridership has grown by 50% over the past 15 years from 10 million to 15 million rides, and the demand for expanded transit services continues to grow,” said Chuck Kamp, Metro Transit General Manager. “We hear from our customers that buses are getting overcrowded and travel times should be shortened. The investments necessary to do both of these things requires new investments in public transportation to provide high capacity bus  transit that will reduce travel times 20-40% and  serve our community for the next 25-50 years.”

Meanwhile, the state is about to spend up to $2.8 billion on four particularly wasteful highway expansion projects:

• Expanding I-94 in Milwaukee: The state intends to spend as much as an additional $800 million (above and beyond the cost of repairing the aging highway) to add capacity to Interstate 94 in Milwaukee, despite public opposition and declining travel levels on that stretch of highway in recent years.

• Adding Lanes to I-90 south of Madison: The plan to widen Interstate 90 from four to six lanes is expected to cost $836 million.  When the plan was hatched, official projections foresaw a 29 percent surge in traffic volumes between 2000 and 2010, but by 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, traffic volumes had inched up just 1 percent over the 12 years.

• Widening State Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth – The state justifies this $128 million project in part by citing expectations of future traffic volumes on this rural highway.  But, the number of vehicles on the highway barely changed between 2008 and 2012.  

• Expanding the Madison Beltline – State officials are studying an expansion of Madison’s east-west freeway, a project likely to cost $1 billion.  While official documents predict that by 2015 traffic will increase all along the 19-mile route, data at several locations collected in 2012 show that traffic levels are not keeping pace with WISDOT expectations.

Wisconsin’s lavish spending on new highway capacity seems particularly short-sighted in light of recent changes in transportation behavior. Wisconsinites are driving less and relying more on non-driving modes of transportation such as walking, biking and transit. The average Wisconsinite today drives no more than he or she did in 1998 and overall vehicle miles travelled in 2013—the most re¬cent year for which data are available from WISDOT—were down approximately 1.5 percent from the peak level of eight years prior.

A May 2014 WISPIRG Foundation survey, Driving Wisconsin’s ‘Brain Drain’: How Outdated Transportation Policies Undermine Wisconsin’s Ability to Attract and Retain Young Talent for Tomorrow’s Economic Prosperity, revealed that most Wisconsin college students want the ability to get around without a car, and many may leave Wisconsin without that option. 

“Our transportation priorities are backwards.  While we waste taxpayer money on unnecessary highway expansion projects, local infrastructure crumbles, hurting our communities and undermining future economic prosperity.  We need leadership who will get our priorities straight,” concluded Speight.

To read WISPIRG Foundation’s series on Wisconsin’s misplaced transportation priorities and the end of America’s driving boom, go to

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WISPIRG Foundation works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.