Alberta Darling: 'Roads in Illinois are much better' than Wisconsin's I-94 near Foxconn

By Max Bayer and Molly Beck, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - Illinois is doing a better job than Wisconsin of maintaining the heavily traveled I-94 that runs through both states, a top Senate Republican said Thursday to argue spending millions of federal dollars to improve the freeway.

"Now when I go into Illinois using I-94, I'm amazed at how the (stereotype) has changed — that the roads in Illinois are much better than I-94 going in and out of Wisconsin," said Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chairwoman of the Legislature's budget-writing committee. "So this is a road in need of being finished, and I want to keep it in the context that it’s a major highway for Wisconsin — for all our economic development, for our tourism industry, and for (agriculture)."

The Legislature's finance committee voted 10-5 Thursday to spend $45.3 million worth of new federal grant funding on improving bridges and highways and $22 million on completing the North-South I-94 corridor, which runs along a site being developed as Taiwanese-based technology giant Foxconn's first U.S. plant.

The plan spends less on the stretch of I-94 than what Gov. Scott Walker asked the panel to approve.

Walker has asked the panel to approve $37.4 million to go toward I-94 and $30 million on bridges and highways.

Darling's comments came after Democrats blasted Walker's plan as a way to send more money to Foxconn, which is receiving $4.5 billion in state and local incentives in exchange for at least 13,000 jobs after it builds a plant in Mount Pleasant.

"This isn't the Foxconn highway," Darling said. "Wisconsin is on a roll — that's why people are coming to Wisconsin. That's one reason why I-94 needs to be completed, because it's so important to our economy."

Democrats on Thursday unsuccessfully proposed to not use any of the $67.4 million on I-94, in part, because it's near the Foxconn site — a development that resulted from negotiations by Walker and officials in his administration. Instead, the Democratic lawmakers sought $30 million for bridges and $37.4 million for highway improvements.

Officials with the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said Thursday that $70 million to $90 million would be taken from the highway rehabilitation budget in this budget biennium to pay for unscheduled Foxconn-related roadwork.

The bureau also found that the I-94 improvements could be made without the grant funding. The state Department of Transportation could fund the project using $86.3 million in residual bonding authority and $51.4 million in bond proceeds.

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) argued the DOT should direct the funding toward highway rehabilitation projects.

“We are choosing to prioritize something, which you have not,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) to Republicans.

Sen. Howard Marklein, a Spring Green Republican facing a tough re-election bid later this year, sided with Democrats on Thursday in voting against the plan passed by his Republican colleagues.

How to fund transportation projects has been a key disagreement between lawmakers in recent years, especially in 2017 when a new state budget was passed months after its deadline, in part, because Republicans could not agree on how to fund road projects.

Republican members of the committee said that it's important the state focus on completing I-94 so that they can eventually pay for other large road projects