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Catching Up: Wisconsin DOT bumps back Beltline interchange plans decision to next year

September 3, 2018

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation says it will release its preferred plan to revamp the interchange at the Madison Beltline and U.S. Interstate 39-90 early next year — after the fall election and a few months later than previously disclosed.

DOT officials are considering two alternatives for the project, both of which are dramatically curtailed in cost and scope from earlier plans. The department previously said the plans would be narrowed down by this fall.

The cheaper of the two alternatives likely would create a traffic bottleneck at one of the region’s busiest interchanges, according to a top transportation lobbyist.

DOT will release its plans in February, DOT Secretary Dave Ross told members of the state’s Transportation Projects Commission in a letter accompanying a biannual report to commissioners on the status of large highway projects and studies.

The rebuilt interchange would be open to traffic by November 2022, Ross wrote.

The interchange reconstruction is part of a broader project now under construction to rebuild and expand I-39-90 from four to six lanes from the interchange about 45 miles south to the Illinois border.

One of the alternatives proposed for rebuilding the interchange would maintain I-39-90 at four lanes, two each way, through the core of the interchange. The other would expand it to six lanes, mirroring the broader expansion of the interstate.

Both alternatives would realign the interchange exit from northbound I-39-90 onto the westbound Beltline, replacing its left exit design with a right exit that DOT officials say would be safer. That element of both proposals would create a new northbound alignment for the interstate through the core of the interchange, while using the old alignment for part of the exit ramp onto the Beltline.

Ross wrote that both alternatives being considered by DOT “employ innovative approaches to maximize the service life of existing infrastructure, while providing solutions to the most critical capacity and safety problems affecting the interchange.”

It would be unwise to expand the interstate for 45 miles to Illinois only to narrow it at one of the region’s busiest interchanges, said Craig Thompson, president of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, which advocates for funding for roads, bridges and transit.

“I sincerely hope we’re not looking at short-term savings by building a new bottleneck,” Thompson said.

Ross’ letter said the cost of both interchange alternatives under consideration is less than $100 million.

At the start of Ross’ tenure in early 2017, DOT officials announced that previous, and far more expansive, plans to rebuild the interchange would have cost $550 million in addition to $1.2 billion for the rest of the I-39-90 project. That’s what triggered Ross to order the department to scale back the interchange project.

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