While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker slashes spending on social services, education, and road maintenance, he has also proposed a 13 percent increase in state funding for new highway construction. A significant portion of this increase, estimated to be between $1.2 and $2.1 billion, is dedicated to four projects that a recent report by Kyle Bailey and Bruce Speight of the WISPIRG Foundation calls "roads to nowhere."
A stretch of Highway 38 near Caledonia, WI, that Walker's proposal would turn into a four-lane, divided road
The largest project, projected to cost $715 million but independently estimated to cost between $1 and $1.5 billion, is the widening of I-90 south of Madison. This project is ostensibly meant to decrease congestion and fatalities along the highway, but the decision was based on traffic and crash data over a decade old. Further, even this outdated evidence does not support a widening of the highway as a method of preventing accidents, since crashes are occurring near interchange ramps which would be unaffected by adding lanes.
Similar unanswered questions plague the other three projects, all of which entail widening existing highways: aging data, a lack of evidence for the project's necessity, and an overall inability to demonstrate that the public is getting their money's worth. In Caledonia, for example, Walker plans to spend $125 million on upgrading a highway without any current traffic problems at all, despite the fact that this road runs parallel to I-94, a major highway only two to four miles east.
Walker campaigned last fall on his promise to stop construction of a planned Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line, even though doing so would forfeit $810 million in federal aid, projected to generate nearly 5,000 jobs. Walker claimed victory when this funding was taken away from Wisconsin and sent elsewhere. He was concerned that even though the federal government would pay the full costs of construction, the state would be left with $7.5 million in annual operating and maintenance expenses. Saying no to the rail line, Walker argued, was a principled stand for long-term fiscal responsibility.
So how does Walker justify spending $2 billion on unnecessary highway expansion projects? It is unclear how "fiscal responsibility" can validate the decision to lose out on $810 million in investment just to save $7.5 million per year, only to then spend $2 billion in state money on unneeded projects. Walker's actions, first rejecting federal funding for rail and then asking to have it back mere months later, and now spending $2 billion in taxpayer money on projects of dubious value, raises the question of whether these decisions are really based on fiscal responsibility, or political calculation.