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In the Public Interest: Examining Governor Scott Walker's Highway Boondoggles

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Scott Walker swept into the Wisconsin governor's office pledging to eliminate government waste and institute fiscal restraint over spending. When he rejected federal funds to build high-speed rail because the trains would require relatively minor operating subsidies, the move was misguided and shortsighted; but his supporters could admire the new governor's consistency.

But budgeting decisions he's made since being in office show that consistency and fiscal restraint to be little more than a mirage.

Two investigations released yesterday show the new governor has wasted excess tax dollars on high-priced consultants to replace cheaper engineers that were lost to budget cuts and has proposed to spend billions on highway boondoggles that make no sense for Wisconsin.

A local news station revealed that in the first four months of this year, Wisconsin's Department of Transportation paid an additional $13.8 million to high-priced consultants beyond the costs of completing the work through the department's engineers. Internal department cost comparisons consistently show that the outsourcing is more expensive than using in-house state engineers, but none are available because of budget cuts by Walker.

Expensive and unnecessary new road projects are the subject of the second set of revelations today. The Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) released a report examining four new proposed road expansion projects that would cost between $1.2 billion and $2.1 billion for the state. The analysis was conducted with the assistance of a former Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Development at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. It found projects that appear unjustified, insufficiently reviewed and supported by outdated data. For example:

· The official data used to justify a proposed widening of I-90 project is both nearly 10 years old and does not support the necessity of the project. Additionally, the proposal has inexplicably chosen the most expensive option for construction in every case on this project. Predictions for the cost of this project range from $715 million to $1.5 billion.

· The official internal statement for the $125 million Highway 15 widening project in Outagamie County states that an intersection improvement might be a lower-cost and viable alternative to a major highway construction project. It also states that without any additional spending, the current Level of Service on the road likely won't deteriorate until 2040!

While queuing up these boondoggles for future spending, Governor Walker has deeply cut other transportation priorities. Aid to localities for road repair suffered a 10 percent reduction, as did funds for public transit agencies. The governor even passed caps that restrain localities from raising their own revenues to make up for these cuts.

Spending on unneeded highway expansion while starving road repair is like a homeowner building an addition for their jacuzzi while neglecting their leaky roof. As a result,
Wisconsinites will face more potholes and structurally deficient bridges. Drivers in Wisconsin already pay an average of $281 in additional operating expenses each year in extra repairs and worse gas mileage.

Consider Governor Walker's choices in light of his decisions about high-speed rail. The governor forfeited $800 million in federal funds for a high-speed intercity rail project, and the jobs that would have come with it, because he expressed concern that the state would need to pay operating funds, which were calculated to be about $8 million per year. At that annual rate, Governor Walker essentially traded 150 to 262 years of high-speed rail service for Wisconsin to pay for four new highway projects. And that's not counting the added costs of maintaining and plowing these highways each year.

Governor Walker should not masquerade as a defender of the public purse while chasing billion-dollar ribbon cuttings for unneeded highway expansions. Nor should he make a show of reducing employee costs for positions that then require higher-cost contractors. If Governor Walker wants to prove that all of the campaign rhetoric about fiscal restraint was more than just for show, he should reject these wasteful projects and high-priced consultants and instead invest in priorities that make sense for Wisconsin, like road and bridge repair and efficient transit and rail.

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