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Lawmakers hope Evers will leave I-41, southern bridge project in budget

By Ed Byrne
The Brillion News

LAWRENCE – It looks like the perfect wedding, and now Republican lawmakers are hoping Gov. Tony Evers doesn’t veto it when the preacher asks if anyone present knows of any reason why the couple should not be married.

In a show of backing for the project to expand Interstate 41 from four to six lanes between Grand Chute and De Pere, and to build a southern bridge connecting I-41 with the east side of De Pere, lawmakers joined local officials in calling for the project to go forward June 24.

At this point, the project’s first steps are funded in the state budget, just completed by the Joint Finance Committee.

It passed the Assembly June 25, the Senate June 27, and now is on Evers’ desk for signature.

Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) is hoping Evers does not use his veto power on the first stage of the project.

Jacque credited Jayme Sellen, the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government and community relations, with organizing the communities and legislators to push for the two projects.

The Monday press conference included Jacque; Senate President Roger Roth (R-Oshkosh); Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) the majority leader of the Assembly; and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.

It also included representatives from most of the municipalities in Brown County, as well as the Oneida Tribe.

Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach said the effort to expand I-41 through Outagamie County and southern Brown County has been going on for the past 30 years.

“In order for us to reach the federal and state levels for funding, you need to have a regional perspective in the request,” Streckenbach said.

He said the I-41 is a safety issue, with six lanes from Neenah to Grand Chute, and from De Pere to Howard, but only four lanes in between.

The southern bridge will connect to I-41 at a new interchange to be built between the Scheuring Road interchange and the County S (Freedom Road) interchange.

The bridge will also link to Packerland Drive on the west side of I-41 and to County GV on the east side of De Pere – essentially creating a new south beltline for metro Green Bay.

Streckenbach said the south bridge would also be key to industrial growth in the metro area.

He said the bridge in downtown De Pere is already at or over capacity.

“It is stifling economic development,” Streckenbach said.

Jacque said the De Pere Claude Allouez Bridge was designed with the understanding that the southern bridge would be built to take the heavy truck traffic out of downtown De Pere.

“It is critical, and to be able to pair that with the Highway 41 lane expansion … it is a game changer,” Jacque said. “This is really a regional economic development and planning and watershed moment for Brown County.”

Jacque said he addressed the issue in his first conversation with Evers, after the fall 2018 elections.

Streckenbach said De Pere Mayor Mike Walsh called him soon after Streckenbach was elected county executive and asked “where are we on the southern bridge?”

“I know there are more hoops to jump through, but at least now we have a partial victory to hang our hat on,” Walsh said.

Nygren said the coalition brings together people whose primary interest is only one part of the project.

“If you’re from Outagamie County, you might care more about Interstate 41. If you’re from Brown County you might care more about the southern bridge,” Nygren said. “My job is to bring all of the interests together to get a budget that passes.”

He said this plan moves “the ball down the field” and all of the advocates of the project need to keep lobbying the governor’s office to not veto it from the budget.

Streckenbach said the project is economically critical to an area with 1.2 million people.

“We need Gov. Evers to sign the budget and allow this project to finally go forward,” Streckenbach said. “Thirty years in the making – congestion, traffic safety, economic development opportunities that are being missed and are hurting our overall economy. It is time to move this project forward… This isn’t one small community’s issue This is a region issue and it shows that we have regional support in response to address the issue.”

If the governor signs the budget and leaves the I-41 bridge project in, Jacque said the planning can begin – including environmental impact studies.

That would signal the federal government to begin planning to help fund it.

“I do think [Evers] will sign it, with partial vetoes as opposed to a wholesale veto of the [entire] budget,” Jacque said.

In addition, Jacque said the coalition promoting this project has to push to keep funding for the project flowing in succeeding biennial budgets.

Although the coalition holding the press conference had no Democratic members of the legislature, Jacque doesn’t see this project as having partisan opposition.

He noted one member of the De Pere Common Council is Jonathan Hansen, son of State Sen. David Hansen (D-Green Bay).

Nygren said the coalition pushing for the I-41-bridge projects is a lot like a family.

Each member has his or her own interests in the project.

Nygren said pairing the I-41 lane expansion to the southern bridge project and a southern beltline interchange with I-41 turned two local interest projects into one major project of regional importance.

“Now all we’ve got to do is get the governor to sign it,” he said.

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