RACINE COUNTY — The state's fight over how to fund road construction could land on Racine County's doorstep.
Gov. Scott Walker has directed the state Department of Transportation to "minimize" spending on major road construction in southeastern Wisconsin, where the ongoing Interstate 94 north-south project runs through Racine County.
But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he will fight to keep the I-94 project on track — possibly foreshadowing a battle between the Legislature and the governor's office.
"I am frustrated that the project, under Governor Walker's plan, is going to be pushed back even further, making the interstate more dangerous and more expensive," said Vos, R-Rochester.
Walker has instructed the DOT to submit its budget request by Sept. 15, rather than November as it usually does. Exactly how projects like I-94, the Zoo Interchange and others might be affected won't be known until then.
The Legislature will then take up the governor's full budget proposal next year.
Walker and legislators have struggled to fund transportation for some time, opting to borrow money to pay for construction. Last year, for example, the state budget included $500 million in borrowing for roads, with an additional $350 million approved in November.
Some legislators have called for the state to look into raising revenue, but in a letter to DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb last week, Walker reiterated his opposition to a gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase.
"Raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees without an equal or greater reduction in taxes elsewhere is not an option, and it would throw a wet blanket on our growing economy," Walker wrote.
He said large projects "should be prioritized based on our needs, not our wants. Large needs-based projects should have their designs reviewed to save taxpayer dollars while maximizing maintenance and safety."
Vos said he believes in an "all of the above" approach, saying the state should look at ways to generate new revenue, continue with an audit looking for waste in the department, investigate cost-saving ideas and prioritize projects.
Vos has said he does not want to pass the next state budget without a long-term plan to fund transportation.
"That is my intention, that we are not going to again kick the can down the road," he said. "We are going to come up with some long-term solutions, instead of just saying, 'We'll fix the problem by borrowing more money from our kids.' "
Vos is running for re-election against Democrat Andy Mitchell, who said the state should look more closely at fixing local roads and reconsider other state policies, like those relating to tax cuts or the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., to free up money for transportation.
"I'm a bit of a skeptic that we need a lot of new construction," Mitchell said. "We need to focus more on fixing what we've got, especially the county roads, because that's an important part of the system for so many people."
No construction is scheduled on the freeway this year. For now, work on the north-south project is scheduled to resume in 2017 with the reconstruction of interchanges at Ryan Road and Elm Road and work on the I-94 roadway between the Racine/Milwaukee county line and Oakwood Road.
The state Department of Transportation in 2018 plans to reconstruct frontage roads in Racine County from Highway 20 to Highway KR as well as the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway C.
All that could change, however, depending on the state budget.
State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said a transportation plan is particularly important for the Racine-Kenosha area. Its location near Milwaukee, Chicago and other Midwestern cities gives the area a greater ability to attract distribution-type businesses which rely on a good infrastructure, Barca said.
"Distribution is a big part of our economy at this point. For them, it's vital you have good roads and bridges," he said.
Barca added that "the governor tells us what he's not going to do. I want to know what he is going to do."