A little bit of normal: TPC meets, WisDOT announces restart of I-39/90/94 study to the Dells

In a year when routines were tossed to the wind and the planning horizon seemed at times to be measured in hours instead of months or years, it was reassuring to have the Transportation Projects Commission (TPC) meet on Dec. 8. Despite the pandemic, the TPC convened to keep Wisconsin moving forward.

So, why is this group so important? The 15-member commission — including five state senators, five Assembly representatives, three citizen members, the governor, and the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation as a nonvoting member — keeps watch over the most complicated and significant state highway projects. The TPC approves major highway project studies proposed by WisDOT, approves some construction, and recommends to the governor and Legislature projects for enumeration, or inclusion, in the next state budget. In between, they monitor the progress of studies and projects.

The commission and this process ensure Wisconsin is always looking to the future and evaluating options to provide the best service for state taxpayer dollars. Like many construction projects, complex highway projects have long lead times, so it is imperative the TPC and WisDOT think today about how goods and people will move in 2050.

Now, WisDOT doesn’t have a crystal ball. The department must do what businesses and our own families do every day: evaluate options with the best information at the time. If we wait for perfect information, we will never do anything.

When the TPC approves a study project, it does not mean WisDOT knows the entirety of a project corridor’s issues or how these concerns might best be addressed. The study’s goal is to determine the purpose and need for any improvements and then advance the best of the alternatives.

Sometimes, a study shows that the problems can be handled at this time with treatments short of a major highway project — that our scarce resources are better directed elsewhere. This is what happened when WisDOT studied I-94 from US 12 to WIS 65 (St. Croix County) and US 12 from WIS 67 to WIS 59 (Walworth County). At the December TPC meeting, WisDOT recommended commission members vote to remove these project studies from the approved list and they did. The process worked to focus our investment on projects with higher ROIs.

The passage of time and additional information can lead to revisiting previous decisions. In the case of I-39/90/94 from Madison to the Wisconsin Dells, further review after the study’s cancellation in 2017 confirmed the need to restart the study. But with this subsequent analysis, WisDOT believes there is now sufficient information available that the evaluation of off-alignment alternatives or reliever routes required by the Federal Highway Administration in the original study will not be included when the study resumes. This potential exclusion is noteworthy because, during the first study period, there was public confusion about and opposition to these reliever routes, which were never likely to be the preferred alternative.

The resurrection of this project study is great news for Wisconsin. I-39/90/94, a backbone route in the state, is a critical freight corridor and serves as the gateway for tourists to the Wisconsin Dells and beyond. Commercial trucks account for up to 25% of daily traffic on the study corridor, and in excess of $100 billion of freight is conveyed along this route each year.

Wisconsin’s $22 billion tourism industry is vital to the state’s economy. Wisconsin Dells visitor spending alone contributes more than $1.5 billion to the economy annually and supports over 16,000 jobs. Looking a little broader, the tourist dollars from three counties encompassing the project — Dane, Columbia, and Sauk — make up almost 20% of the state’s total tourism sales.

Tackling the modernization of the I-39/90/94 corridor north of Madison has always been the next step after making improvements from the Illinois line to Madison. The study will allow Wisconsin to address existing and future congestion, safety issues, obsolete and aging pavement and bridges, and support economic development. And to do so, not in fits and starts, but systematically and efficiently.

Quite simply, a safe, modern I-39/90/94 corridor to the Dells is essential to support Wisconsin’s tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing industries.  And yes, planning for the future and a time beyond the coronavirus pandemic feels like a slice of normal.

Here is hoping next year’s normal includes a trip to the Dells and everywhere else in Wisconsin that brings you joy.

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