Wisconsin Legislature Rebuffs Gov. Walker by Refusing Highway Mega-Expansion and Requiring Audit of Inaccurate Forecasts and Wasteful Projects

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Wisconsin Legislature Rebuffs Gov. Walker by Refusing Highway Mega-Expansion and Requiring Audit of Inaccurate Forecasts and Wasteful Projects

WASHINGTON - After weeks of debates that largely centered on the future of transportation spending in the state, the Wisconsin state legislature last night passed a budget for the upcoming biennium. In a strong rebuke of Governor Scott Walker, the new budget does not give the go-ahead to the controversial expansion of Interstate 94. Similarly, other highway expansions for which Governor Walker had sought up to $1.3 billion in state bonding will be delayed or scaled back. The budget also calls for an audit of the administration’s record of building new and wider highways based on controversial forecasts of rapid driving growth that fail to materialize.

“For years, we’ve wasted billions of dollars on highway expansions based on inflated traffic forecasts, and our existing infrastructure has been left to crumble as a result,” said Peter Skopec, WISPIRG Director. “The stop to the I-94 expansion is great news for taxpayers, and the audit brings much-needed scrutiny to WisDOT’s methods used to justify billion-dollar projects like it. This is a crucial first step toward more responsible transportation spending and planning in Wisconsin.”

“This is a big victory, not only for the people of Wisconsin, but for anyone that cares about transportation. The Wisconsin legislature made the right decision in rejecting a massive highway boondoggle and auditing the Department of Transportation’s inscrutable forecasts and decision making,” said John Olivieri, National Campaign Director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group. “It’s a watershed moment for regaining taxpayers’ trust in transportation decision-making when a state legislature blows the whistle on the misguided highway expansion shenanigans of a Governor from the same party,” he added.

The decision by the legislature to audit the driving demand projections of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) comes on the heels of a May 2015 federal court decision, which similarly found WisDOT’s driving demand projections were “inadequate.” The court also held that the expansion of state Highway 23, previously justified on WisDOT’s projections, would be ineligible for federal funding in the meantime.

The dramatic decision in Wisconsin is part of a larger trend. A similar lawsuit in Illinois recently challenged how the state projected future driving needs in justifying the now-cancelled Illiana Expressway. A federal district court in that state upheld the suit. Both Maryland and Washington have revised their future traffic forecasts to reflect the trend toward slower growth of driving. Even the federal Department of Transportation has changed their future forecast for the United States.

“Several states around the country, and even the federal government are coming around to the realization that planning for big increases in future driving can be a fool’s errand,” said Olivieri. “There are better ways to invest this money,” he added.

The lack of justification for expanding Interstate 94 was highlighted in a study by the Wisconsin PIRG Foundation in September 2014, titled, “Fork in the Road: Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities?”

Interstate 94 was also identified in a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, titled, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” The report identified 11 seriously questionable highway projects around the country and evaluated their proposed justification.

More information about changes in driving behavior can be found in another recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, titled, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future.”

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U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), stands up to powerful special interests on behalf of the American public, working to win concrete results for our health and our well-being. With a strong network of researchers, advocates, organizers and students in state capitols across the country, we take on the special interests on issues, such as product safety,political corruption, prescription drugs and voting rights,where these interests stand in the way of reform and progress.

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