State Rep. Dale Kooyenga lives in north Brookfield, well away from the direct impact of reconstruction work on the Zoo Interchange. But he knows that doesn't mean he won't feel it — or that he doesn't see the need for it.
"My world is from the west boundary of Madison to an east boundary of Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee," he said in an interview. "In its present condition, I avoid the Zoo Interchange when I can. To go to Milwaukee, I take Capitol Drive over to Fond du Lac and shoot downtown."
Kooyenga's 14th District seat straddles the Brookfield-Wauwatosa line and much of the project area. But beyond his personal interest, Kooyenga also knows that the Zoo Interchange is the critical hub of transportation and therefore commerce for the entire region — perhaps the entire state.
"We're a major city that drives the economic engine of Wisconsin," Kooyenga said. "I think it's time to fix it, in the interest of economic development."
With that sentiment, Kooyenga said he would add his voice to others calling to budget the Zoo Interchange as planned and not brook any delays.
Kooyenga in an influential position in Madison
Late last year, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation issued a statement saying that budget projections for highway projects showed that there would be insufficient funds to complete all planned projects within their current timetables.
Specifically, the department said, the massive Zoo Interchange project — expected to cost $1.7 billion and already scheduled to take six years to complete — might have to be stretched out over eight or even nine years.
Gov. Scott Walker has so far been noncommittal, seemingly willing to let the DOT and the Legislature work it out. And that makes Kooyenga — a newly appointed member of the powerful Joint Finance Committee — a key voice. He's made up his mind.
"I agree, that’s too big an interchange to put on hold," he said. "I'm going to push for it. Delaying it is not going to change the fact that we need to get things done. That particular project is, I believe, the largest, and I also think the most important, in the history of the state."
Wauwatosa wants it done on time
Those even closer to ground zero for years of road closings and detours couldn’t agree more. Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley, by a resolution of the Common Council, sent a letter to Walker, Kooyenga and the rest of the Legislative delegation representing the area urging that the Zoo Interchange be kept on its timetable.
A former mayor, Terry Estness, is now executive director of the Wauwatosa Chamber of Commerce, and she, too, wants the governor and the Legislature to find a way to keep the project on the fast track.
"The Chamber fully supports the city's position on this," Estness said. "I've been in meetings where, for example, the Marquette Interchange has been described as a mere speed bump in the road in comparison to the breadth and length of this project — and compared to the potential impact this project will have on businesses, commerce development, economic development, not just for Wauwatosa but for the entire state.
"This is the most highly trafficked interchange in Wisconsin, so it’s not merely a construction project. It is the technology highway, it’s the economic development highway, for the entire state of Wisconsin. It has impact for tourism; it has impact for business development; it has impact on people commuting. It’s an important project and it needs to be done sooner rather than later."
For Wauwatosa specifically, where the lion's share of the work will be done, the disruption is already being felt and needs to be kept to the minimum, Estness said.
"The medical quadrant is an important part of business within the city of Wauwatosa," she said, "but we can’t forget it also impacts the patients and emergency response. I know there are all sorts of plans in place for getting emergency vehicles where they need to be. But this whole construction is making that much more difficult.
"The city of Wauwatosa has to establish a temporary fire station on the west side of the city — as it should, so that the city can be responsive to emergencies during this construction time. That is another financial burden to the city that can be shorter if this project continues on a timely basis.
"The city points out in its letter the need for this to move forward because of the impact of delays on the city’s own capital improvement projects, everything from streets to sewers. It is a financial burden to the city to delay this any more than it needs to be."
'Magnificent disruption' if timetable is upset
William Drew, executive director of the Milwaukee County Research Park, takes an engineer's view.
"It’s best that this is completed in the timeframe that was proposed," Drew said. "If you delay it, it’s my understanding that we should either do it on time or stop with what we will have accomplished in 2013 and than pick it up (when fully budgeted), because the rest of it needs to be done kind of at the same time, the way it’s scheduled.
"If you break it up, it will cause unbelievable difficulty, I think, for the medical complex and for travelers through the area. So from a very practical standpoint, the design of the project as a whole had been envisioned and scheduled to this point in a way that makes really good sense, and if you start tearing it apart, it really causes problems."
"This is a monstrously complicated project," Drew said. "It is more complicated than the Marquette Interchange by a factor of 'something.' We don’t have the alternative routes out here that they had. It all needs to hang together. You divert traffic to do one part of it, and then that part takes up traffic as you do the second part of it and the third part. And if you disrupt that, you really screw up the whole project. The disruption is magnificent."
Drew added that while other projects exist that need to get done — such as the road that starts from the state line to Madison — it just makes more sense to finish a project that's already been started before moving to something else.
Do it, but do it within fiscal restraints, Kooyenga says
Kooyenga said that given the amount of time he spends in Madison, he, too, understands the need for improvements to the state line route. But he agreed with Drew that the project furthest along and of the greatest importance is that one that should be given precedence.
Moreover, he won’t support raising any taxes to see that both projects are advanced on time and on budget. He did say he would be willing to look at other solutions.
"There are things like sales of tires – you could segregate and redirect the existing sales tax on that from the general fund to transportation.
"But my preference is to better prioritize the revenue that we have," Kooyenga said. "I also have a difficult time believing that it has to cost that much. That’s a huge price tag, and I would want to put pressure on the DOT to see if they can do it for less.
"Saying I support the Zoo Interchange is one thing, but as a Legislature we need to make sure that it’s done cost-effectively. And that said, too, I understand that the costs, overall, are greater the longer you wait to get it done, and I would be opposed to paying more to delay it."
Ultimately, Kooyenga said, finishing the project as scheduled – and the design and build schedule, at six years, is already long enough – is something that is owed to the state’s citizens.
"It’s a quality of life issue," Kooyenga said. "One of the reasons I fell in love with Milwaukee is because of how easy it is to get around. It isn’t Chicago.
"That’s one of the great things we have going for us, and we need to keep in mind how important it is to people, and to what Milwaukee is."