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Wisconsin Republicans reduce I-94 funding amid criticism

Scott Bauer, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee took a detour Thursday from Gov. Scott Walker's road-funding plan, directing more money toward local road projects amid criticism from Democrats who argued against spending anything more on the interstate near the massive Foxconn Technology Group project.

The state learned last week that it was being awarded $67 million more than it had expected from the federal government for roads. That required the budget committee to meet and decide how to spend it.

Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, the budget committee co-chair, said completing the decade-old Interstate 94 project near the planned Foxconn project needed to be prioritized because of the amount of traffic along the corridor between Milwaukee and Illinois.

"The roads in Illinois are much better than I-94 going in and out of Wisconsin," Darling said.

That quote is certain to be recycled throughout the fall campaign season by Democrats, who see the condition of Wisconsin roads as a major issue they can use against Republicans. Walker and fellow Republicans have been in complete control of state government since 2011 but have not come up with a long-term funding solution for transportation.

The road-funding debate is now tied to the Foxconn project because of its proximity to the ongoing I-94 road work. Foxconn is another issue Democrats hope to use against Republicans because $4.5 billion in taxpayer incentives could go to the Taiwan-based company if it hits investment and employment targets.

Republicans voted last year to speed up work on the I-94 rehabilitation and expansion project because of Foxconn, which is building in Mount Pleasant near the interstate. Democrats argue that other pothole-ridden local roads and highways should be repaired first instead of completing I-94 to help Foxconn.

"Our roads are falling apart," Democratic state Sen. Chris Taylor, of Madison, argued.

In a move to blunt Democratic criticism, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted to increase spending on local bridge projects from the $30 million Walker proposed to $38 million. The panel also approved spending $6.7 million on other state road projects. Democrats proposed spending the full $67 million on roads and bridges, and none of it on I-94.

The committee approved spending $22 million — $15 million less than Walker proposed — on completing the long-delayed I-94 work that began in 2009.

It approved the funding plan in a 10-5 vote, with all Republicans in support except Sen. Howard Marklein, of Spring Green, who is a top target for Democrats in the November election. Marklein joined all four Democrats in voting against it, saying he wanted more money to go toward local roads.

Reconstruction of I-94 began under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and was originally scheduled to be completed in 2016. But Walker's administration in 2012 delayed the work, moving the end date to 2021. Under the state budget approved in 2015, the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange project was given priority, further delaying completion of I-94 to the end of 2022.

The most recent budget included $250 million to speed up work of I-94 because of the Foxconn project, which will increase traffic along the interstate. That additional funding moved up the completion date to 2021.

Foxconn says it could employ up to 13,000 people to make liquid crystal display panels at the factory, which would be its first outside of Asia.

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