Budget politics threatens State 15 project
By John Faucher
After nearly 20 years of planning and widespread public input, the State Highway 15 bypass project between New London and Greenville could be in jeopardy.
Recent reports that the state budget process could alter or delay the bypass project have once again prompted local officials to rally in support of the project’s completion as planned.
Planning for the $148 million dollar 11-mile bypass project began in 2001, and construction was set to begin in 2018.
After fears of a delay in late 2015, local municipalities along the corridor met with state officials and signed resolutions asking the project be kept on schedule.
At the time, the bypass was among five major projects proposed for delay due to a decrease in funding levels to the statewide highway program. The project would have been pushed off until 2023 under that proposal.
By early 2016, local corridor communities breathed a sigh of relief as funding for continued land acquisition was approved and the start date was set for 2018.
Last Thursday, June 22, Hortonville Village Administrator Diane Wessel joined representatives from New London, Hortonia, Greenville and Outagamie County in a meeting with DOT Secretary Dave Ross in Madison, to request that the project remain funded in the budget and proceed as scheduled.
In an email Monday to the Press Star, Wessel said that during the meeting, Secretary Ross and his staff expressed their continued support of the State 15 project and its current timeline that is included in Gov. Walker’s budget. He also stated the state Senate supports the project.
Ross informed the group the project is in the hands of the state Assembly as it works through the budget.
Wessel said Thursday’s meeting with Ross was prompted by reports of a meeting in Hobart attended by village officials from Hobart, Ross, State Rep. Jim Steineke and Sen. Rob Cowles.
The meeting was also attended by representatives of several commercial and residential projects being built in the Hobart area where an interchange at State Highway 29 and County Trunk VV is planned.
Hortonia resident Jim Sykes also attended the meeting.
A June 9 article in The Press, a weekly newspaper serving the greater Hobart area, stated Sykes told the group he “felt their community did not need the Hortonville interchange” and other projects should be completed before Hortonville is considered.
The article also reported that Ross asked, “Who asked for the Hortonville Interchange?” The article reported that no clear answer was given.
Ross was appointed as DOT Secretary in January 2017.
“Needless to say, the village was quite taken aback when we read the article,” said Wessel. “The article reported what is a misrepresentation of the village’s position. This meeting did not include a representative from or on behalf of the village.”
She also reported that the village was not informed of the meeting nor invited to the meeting where the village of Hortonville’s future was discussed.
Wessel said they were additionally disappointed that Steineke apparently did not speak up after the question was asked about who originally asked for the Hortonville interchange.
“This is especially disappointing to the village because a month previous, the village president, public works director and myself met with Jim Steineke and clearly articulated the village’s position,” Wessel said in an email last week.
She noted that village representatives also met with Steineke in May of 2015.
“The village has expressed our need for the bypass for the past 15 years, as is evidenced by numerous resolutions and communication to our representatives and the governor,” Wessel said in email correspondence with the Press Star. She also provided documents from 2001 to the present supporting her statements.
“The Highway 15 project is extremely important to us for both economic and safety reasons,” said Wessel. “We are passionate about our support of it.”
In addition to attending the meeting with Secretary Ross, the village drafted a letter reiterating its support for the project.
New London also concerned
The City of New London Common Council unanimously authorized Mayor Gary Henke to mail a letter to Ross at its June 14 meeting. The letter will also be sent to state lawmakers and Gov. Walker.
At the meeting, Henke explained to city council members that Outagamie County Highway Commissioner Dean Steingraber told him he attended a meeting of state officials where alternative ideas were mentioned for the State 15 project.
“[Ross] asked if, gee, maybe we ought to put that project off a few more years, or maybe we should redesign it and make it two lane with passing lanes somewhere, or we could just leave it alone as it is,” Henke told the council. “And Dean was quite concerned. He knew that we were about the Highway 15 project.”
In his letter dated June 14, Henke tells Ross: “We have been patiently waiting for 17 years now for this plan to come to fruition. To consider changing the plan that we all worked so hard on is a discredit to your Department and a violation [of] the public trust that was put forward for this valuable regional project.
“Please, if you are to do anything regarding this proposal, simply follow through with the plan as previously agreed to by all our local governments and the vast majority of our constituents. To do otherwise would not be appreciated.”
City Administrator Kent Hager attended last Thursday’s meeting with Ross in Madison. He included a summary of the meeting in his weekly staff notes memo released at city hall on Tuesday, June 27.
“In short the Secretary said that there have been no changes to the HWY 15 project,” Hager wrote. “It is in the Governor’s budget and the Secretary and the DOT fully support the Governor’s budget.”
Hager went on to explain that the city’s best bet is to work with local legislators to ensure the project remains fully funded in the budget.
“But that still does not discount the other politics being played out with the project,” he wrote. “Here again, in my opinion, it appears that one or more of the land owners who will be near or cut up by the new road alignment is [or] are working in the background. We all need to contact Sen. Olsen and Rep. Petersen and remind them of how important it is that this project receives it’s much anticipated funding.”
Luther Olsen’s office can be reached by calling 608-266-0751 or emailing Sen.Olsen@legiswisconsin.gov.
Kevin Petersen’s office can be reached by contacting Rep.Petersen@legis.wisconsin.gov or 608-282-3640.
Scott Bellile contributed to this article.