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Summer Travelers Will Face Sea of Orange Cones in Southeastern Wisconsin

Marge Pitrof

It’s not your imagination. The freeway system around metro Milwaukee is clogged with construction.

Commuters may have found pathways around the congestion, but vacationers might not be as savvy – and the summer tourism season is about to begin.

The past decade has seen a complete overhaul of the Marquette Interchange in downtown Milwaukee and the Mitchell Interchange on the south side.

Soon after those projects were completed, the state broke ground on the Zoo Interchange, I-94 southbound, 794 and the Hoan Bridge. All are well underway, to be completed within five years.

Michael Pyritz is local spokesman for the Department of Transportation. He admits construction here has reached its pinnacle.

“There really is a high water mark as far as the amount of work that is ongoing in the area, but we do need to make the commitment, we need to make the investment to get these facilities rebuilt and last another 50-70 years into the future. We’re at that time now where just a lot of things are overlapping at the same moment,” Pyritz says.

The state could not avoid overlap, according to Ken Yunker. He’s executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Yunker says the system is reaching the end of its life.

“The entire freeway system was built in a span of years from the mid to late 60s to the early 70s, so it’s time to be reconstructed will all reach about the same time as well. Some parts can perhaps be stretched out a little longer; other parts the way they were designed, the Marquette Interchange, needed to be reconstructed a little earlier,” Yunker says.

Yunker credits the state with doing a good job of managing the projects. He says the real challenge is coming up with the money to pay for the massive overhaul. The Zoo Interchange and the I-94 South projects are expected to cost nearly $4 billion; the work in downtown Milwaukee will add another $172 million.

Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga sits on the Legislature’s Joint Finance committee. He says state leaders borrowed money to pay for the projects now underway. “And that’s a concern because as we look forward the level of bonding in Wisconsin is getting excessive for transportation,” Kooyenga says.

Kooyenga says the state now spends 14 percent of its transportation revenue, paying down the debt, so borrowing is no longer a viable option. And the transportation budget appears headed for a $650 million hole. So the Assemblyman says Wisconsin will have to get creative, in order to fund road repairs. 

Lawmakers have tossed around ideas, such as using money from the general fund, increasing the gas tax and setting up tollbooths.  As for navigating the construction this Memorial Day weekend, the DOT’s Michael Pyritz says it will do what it can.

“During holiday time periods we pull back and open up as many lanes as possible through all of the various projects, and we make sure there are not crews out there, to help facilitate the higher daily traffic counts,” Pyritz says.

In addition, Pyritz says crews are doing as much work as possible during off peak hours and at night.