The effort to revive Milwaukee’s East-West freeway project appears dead.

On Friday the Walker Administration delivered what one observer called “the kill shot.”

Namely, according to the Department of Transportation (WisDOT), the $25 million needed to restart the project would “result in reduced funding availability for other [outstate] projects already funded…which could result in project delays or terminations elsewhere in the state.” That assessment, part of the fiscal note to Assembly Bill 919, clashed with the bill’s assumption that the department would “identify efficiencies in the programs it administers…under an existing cost-saving or efficiency assessment program…”

Not so fast, says WisDOT. According to the fiscal note: “The bill requires WisDOT [to] identify $25 million in programs administered by the department. WisDOT has already initiated numerous cost-saving initiatives, which have been reallocated to the continued delivery of administered programs.” That wording, by the way, conflicts with the narrative advanced in some quarters that the transportation department’s $2.6 billion highway budget is awash in “waste.” If that is so, clearly it could find $25 million — a mere one percent — in “efficiencies.”

According to my sources, senior Walker Administration officials had told AB 919 sponsors the governor would sign the bill if it reached his desk. That effectively was an empty pledge, as WisDOT simultaneously was telling out-state legislators it could not finance the legislation without cutting other projects.

A big “winner” from the demise of AB 919 is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Along with a collection of groups that had sued to stall East-West project, Barrett has opposed it. The mayor now stands to get his wish, a stop-gap repaving (that will cost much more than $25 million) that will serve only to clog up the 3.5 mile stretch of worn out freeway that lies between the new Marquette and Zoo Interchanges. The eventual cost of rebuilding the freeway, now on indefinite hold, now will substantially exceed the current $1 billion estimate.

The list of losers is topped, of course, by users of the accident-prone and outmoded stretch of the state’s Interstate system. A broad coalition of businesses and Marquette University have supported the East-West reconstruction. Governor Scott Walker has turned a deaf ear to their agenda, stating that major freeway work in Milwaukee is off the table “for the foreseeable future.”

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