MILWAUKEE COUNTY -- Gov. Scott Walker says local infighting over the Interstate 94 East-West project near Miller Park led him to abandon it entirely and redirect funding to another stretch of freeway.
Walker is relying on project delays to plug a billion-dollar shortfall in the state's road fund, saying he will not raise the gas tax even if lawmakers approve $203 million in state income tax cuts that Walker proposed in his budget. In doing so, the governor reversed a previous pledge to consider a gas tax hike if there was a corresponding tax cut elsewhere.
Walker is shifting $31 million allocated for the I-94 East-West project to a long-delayed rebuild of the I-94 North-South corridor through Racine and Kenosha counties. The funding for the North-South freeway still falls far short of what's needed to complete the roadwork.
Rebuilding I-94 between 16th and 70th streets in Milwaukee has long been contentious. The state Department of Transportation first considered a double-deck for the interstate before settling on a widening plan. Neighbors oppose the road construction, and Walker said he feared a lawsuit.
"We wanted to make sure we didn’t end up putting money in an area that it could get caught up in not just the debate but, potentially, in court," Walker told FOX6.
Walker said he wanted to avoid the fate of a separate state project, Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan, which he said is "stuck in court."
Major companies, including Miller Brewing Co., ship products through the aging stretch of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges. The Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce said it will fight Walker's plan.
"Every drop of beer Miller brews is moved by truck out of Milwaukee," said Steve Baas, senior vice president of governmental affairs at MMAC. "If you start having a deteriorating infrastructure system, it has ramifications for those companies."
Chamber members would give consideration to open-road tolling or increases to vehicle fees to pay for improved roads, Baas said.
Republican leaders in the Assembly blasted Walker's plan to delay projects to deal with the state road fund shortfall.
"Actions have consequences," said Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna. "The consequences will cost us millions."
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele wouldn't take a position on the East-West corridor when asked by FOX6, but said lawmakers should consider tax or fee increases to improve roads and reduce reliance on the state gas tax.
"We're not focusing on the one factor that impacts all of these transportation decisions, and that's funding, sustainable funding," Abele said.
Walker told reporters in Milwaukee that he would not consider a gas tax increase even if lawmakers pass his proposed income tax cut. For months, he pledged to consider a tax hike to pay for roads if lawmakers cut taxes elsewhere in the budget.
Walker pointed to better-than-expected state state revenue forecasts, which he is largely spending on K-12 schools, the University of Wisconsin System, and his tax cut proposal -- not roads.
"I just don’t think at a time we have such a sizable reform dividend, when revenues coming into the state exceed the expenditures we’re talking about, why in the world would we want to raise taxes at that time?" Walker questioned.