It’s now official.  

In response to a September request from the Walker administration, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has rescinded approval of Milwaukee’s East-West freeway project.

The action caps a roller-coaster year in which Governor Scott Walker has steered the state away from a project he once labeled a high priority. Among other things, it means a much higher taxpayer bill when the inevitable need to rebuild and modernize a critical transportation artery is addressed.

In the meantime — save for Foxconn-inspired work in Racine County — plans to rebuild Southeastern Wisconsin freeways are in complete limbo.

In the arcane world of highway project planning, the FHWA recission is a big deal.  Major projects such as the E-W can’t proceed without a federal OK.  While there remains a narrow window of time in which the action could be reversed, that would require a course correction by Walker.

Here’s why it matters.  As things now stand:

  • A delay of several years is a distinct possibility.  Every year, taxpayer costs to rebuild will grow by tens of millions.
  • A $20 million planning effort that Walker initiated in 2011 could unravel and need to be re-started.
  • The state could spend $50 million for a traffic-snarling, temporary repaving that buys little time.  It’s a move the state previously said does not make sense.
  • Increased congestion and a high accident rate will be the norm on the 3.5-mile choke-point between the modernized Marquette and Zoo Interchanges.  

Here’s a chronology of the project since Walker’s 2010 election:

2011:  The Transportation Projects Commission, chaired by Walker, approved project planning.

2012-2014:  The Wisconsin Department of Transportation worked closely with FHWA to evaluate alternatives as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

2015:  WIDOT and FHWA chose a preferred option.  Notably, more than half of the proposed budget addressed safety issues that plague the road. Accident rates on the East-West are two to four times the average for urban freeways.

2016:  After FHWA and the WIDOT signed a final EIS, the governor pledged to include the project in his 2017-2019 budget.  Based on that commitment, the FHWA issued its formal approval.

2017:   The governor reversed his position and failed to propose East-West funding in his budget. When FHWA last month asked the state for an alternative financing plan, DOT Secretary Dave Ross responded not with a plan but a request that federal approval be rescinded.

Walker had delivered a warning in late 2016 that his written commitment to the East-West project might have an early expiration date.  

A December article in the Ashland Daily Press reported the governor’s remarks at a local appearance. Describing how more could be spent on rural roads, the governor said, “Stop spending a billion and a half dollars on Milwaukee area projects. It’s that simple…I’m not using additional money to fund another billion or billion and a half dollars worth of projects in the Milwaukee area.”

Once the Zoo Interchange was complete, Walker said “we are not spending another penny down there for the next several years.”

Following the September request that FHWA withdraw East-West approval, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked the governor’s office about what it called an “about face.” The paper was referred to WIDOT.  There, a spokesperson said via email that rescinding federal approval “has several benefits at this point, including avoiding litigation expenses and clarifying near-term transportation funding plans.”  

In fact, about all that’s clear is that a project launched by the governor in 2011 now has been postponed indefinitely. As for litigation expenses, the state will delay but not avoid them. Ducking a legal fight now simply signals that the East-West project has been kicked way down the road. After all, why spend money to win a legal battle if there is no commitment to actually capitalize on a victory?

Over the course of the next year transportation policy will be a major issue in the governor’s campaign to seek a third term.  It remains to be seen whether the resulting debate will alter Walker’s stance on Southeastern Wisconsin freeway projects.

In the meantime, the executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association aptly summarizes the situation. As Craig Thompson told the Journal Sentinel, putting the East-West project on ice, “clearly highlights the absence of any coherent plan to rebuild the freeway system in southeast Wisconsin. It will diminish investments already made and make it nearly impossible for business to make informed decisions.”

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