In the past week, there have been some high profile finger-pointing about who is to blame for the Zoo Interchange closure. On Thursday, March 25th, engineers conducted a bridge inspection of the Zoo Interchange and found cracking in the concrete girders that reached nearly two feet long. This lead to an emergency shutdown of the US 45 northbound bridge through the Zoo Interchange the next day due to safety concerns. The Department of Transportation stated that overweight trucks were responsible for the bridge's rapid deterioration, but overweight trucks don't cause steel reinforcements to rust.
This is somewhat of a problem for politicians that were reticent to fix the busiest interchange in Wisconsin, and yet found time to plan trips to Spain to contrive a high speed rail project that has little public support. The Zoo Interchange plays host to 350,000 vehicles per day making it the most important artery of commuting in the state. In contrast, the high speed rail project envisioned by Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett wouldn't see 350,000 travelers in an entire year. Some wonder if these politicians have their priorities in the right place.
Instead of fixing the interchange earlier as originally planned in the 90s and then in 2005, now the state must spend an additional $15 million to build a temporary bridge that will be torn down later. And instead of committing to a $810 million federal program for a high speed rail project that would reduce traffic on our highways by less than 1%, Doyle and Barrett should have been concerned about roads used by 99% of those who commute everyday. Someone is at fault for this 15 million dollar debacle, and it won't take long before people realize who is at fault.
In April of 2003, a study confirmed that both I-94 and the Zoo Interchange needed reconstruction. In 2005, the state legislature sent a $38 million appropriation to Governor Doyle's desk highlighting the importance of maintaining the busiest interchange in the state. Doyle vetoed most of the measure and had the DOT issue a statement stating they will revisit the Zoo Interchange in "due time".
Why did Doyle veto the measure? Doyle was under significant political pressure from forces in Milwaukee. Among them was Mayor Tom Barrett who wrote a letter to the legislature telling them that the "Zoo Interchange will stand long enough for us to resolve these issues." And now, 5 years years later, US 45 is shut down due to safety concerns.
After the shutdown, candidate for governor Scott Walker laid blame at the feet of Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett saying,
"It is amazing that Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett can advocate spending $810 million on a new 'high-speed' rail line while the state government cannot even fix one of the busiest interchanges in Wisconsin. Years of raiding the Transportation Fund and years of Milwaukee politicians like the Mayor fighting work on the East-West corridor have now led to a crisis that will have a negative impact on commerce".
Mark Neumann echoed a similar sentiment saying,
"Unfortunately, years of reckless fiscal mismanagement, including raids on the state's transportation fund, have allowed this deterioration to occur. Wisconsin's crumbling infrastructure is symbolic of a government that fails to put people first and gets tangled up in politics and bureaucracy to the detriment of its citizens."
Both gubernatorial candidates converged on the fact that Doyle has a history of raiding the state's transportation fund, which has lead to the procrastination and neglect of state roadways. In fact, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Doyle's stripped $1.2 billion from the transportation fund to support education and to aid local municipalities. This produced a "net drop" of $434 million, which the state had to borrow.
Naturally, if the state doesn't have money to repair its roads, they will find ways to defer or postpone the problem to a future date. A good example of this is the installment of weight restrictions to Highway 45 back in August, which was meant to buy a few more years of life. But Doyle said that before he was elected in 2002, there were plans to rebuild I-94 and the Zoo Interchange. This means that the Zoo Interchange was a long-standing problem. Worse yet, the DOT is now saying that these projects were "neglected for years before Doyle came into office". If this is truly the case, then why did Doyle continue to strip the transportation fund of a billion dollars?
Barrett Fires Back at Walker
Walker put Barrett on the defense by circulating and publicizing his 2005 letter while building a website called the "Barrett Bypass" essentially blaming him for the eventual shutdown of Highway 45. Barrett fired back saying that Walker endorsed the DOT plan supporting the sequence of rebuilding the Marquette Interchange first, then the Zoo Interchange. This sequence, of course, proved to be ill-conceived and dangerous to commuters.
But Walker did not support the sequence that Barrett alleged. Instead, Walker has been an advocate for the Zoo Interchange and I-94 for years and has never pushed for a particular sequence. As misery enjoys company, it appears that Barrett is looking for someone to share the blame.
But Walker didn't write a letter to the legislature seeking to put off repairs on the Zoo Interchange. Walker didn't publicly thank Governor Doyle for vetoing the appropriations measure that funded the Zoo Interchange calling the project "divisive". Walker didn't try to delay the project by citing environmental concerns pushing the DOT to conduct a full environmental impact study on the project rather than a more timely abbreviated assessment. And Walker didn't say that "Just because Busalacchi and Waukesha Republicans want this done quickly, doesn't mean we take shortcuts" as Barrett's chief of staff did in 2005.
In a letter to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (on page 9A) dating back to May of 1998, then Wauwatosa Representative Scott Walker said he supported rebuilding the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges while Milwaukee leaders had opposed it. 12 years ago, Walker knew that the Zoo Interchange needed attention, so why couldn't governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett come to the same conclusion?
Not only didn't Barrett see the problem, he sought to bog down the process by citing environmental concerns and writing letters. In an email exchange with Jill Bader, Walker's campaign spokesperson, she said,
"I find it interesting that Mayor Barrett is trying to throw up so many smoke screens to distance himself from the fact that he specifically lobbied against fixing the zoo interchange, a mistake that will cost the taxpayers approximately $15 million dollars."
One thing seems fairly certain. $15 million is a hefty price for taxpayers to pay for a miscalculation.