BELOIT -- Officials unveiled Thursday one of the most expensive highway projects in state history, but it is designed to do more than ease congestion.
The $715 million reconstruction and expansion of a 45-mile stretch of Interstate 39-90 between Madison and the Illinois state line will aid state tourism and help create more economic development along the corridor, one of the busiest stretches of highway in the state, officials say.
The eight-year project is scheduled to begin in 2015, but construction of the Highway 11 interchange in Janesville is scheduled for 2013.
"This is a really great day for Wisconsin," said state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. "This represents a $715 million vote of confidence for Wisconsin. It's a vote of confidence in our economy and a vote of confidence in the importance of transportation infrastructure."
The project will replace pavement, add a third lane in each direction, replace two bridges over the Rock River and replace nearly 100 other smaller bridges on the route.
Unlike most major highway projects where the federal government can cover 80 to 90 percent of the work, the I-39-90 project will be 70 percent state funded and 30 percent federal, said John Vesperman, the Department of Transportation's project chief.
The project is divided into three segments, but work will take place in each segment between 2015 and 2021. Two lanes of traffic in each direction will be kept open at all times.
"We've put a lot of emphasis and effort on schedule and budget management," Vesperman said.
The project has been talked about for years. The state funded a study of the project in 2001, but since then other DOT projects have taken precedence. They include the $800 million Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee and the $1.9 billion, 32-mile expansion of Interstate 94 now under way between Milwaukee and the Illinois border.
That led in 2010 to the creation of Forward Janesville's I-39-90 Now Coalition, which was intended to push the stagnant project along.
The roadway has deteriorating pavement, traffic congestion creates frequent backups, and it has accident rates higher than the statewide average for similar roads.
"Frankly, we feared that some of these problems were transforming this asset into a liability. This was something our area simply could not afford," said Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville, a 500-member economic development group.
Cunningham calls the highway "the backbone" of south-central Wisconsin's economy. He cited a study by the Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research at UW-Madison that found the roadway is responsible for moving $650 million to $800 million worth of commerce each day.
"That commerce does not just stop in Rock County or Dane County," Cunningham said. "It flows to every part of Wisconsin and the Midwest."
The highway provides access for more than 70,000 vehicles a day, with about 35 percent of that volume consisting of heavy trucks. In 2007, truck traffic accounted for 30 percent of the volume, according to the DOT.
In Beloit, where the downtown is being redeveloped and the school system is about to get a $70 million upgrade following approval of an April 3 referendum, the highway project is another benefit.
It will also fix the Interstate 43 interchange where it connects with I-39-90. Because of its design, backups are common, said Larry Arft, Beloit's city manager.
"We've got an ancient cloverleaf interchange, which slows the traffic, particularly trucks, literally to a crawl to get through it," Arft said. "This is a benchmark project."
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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