Supreme Court Decision Halts Local Transit Projects

A Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that bridled Gov. Tony Evers’ veto authority has also pressed the pause button on state grant dollars that had been awarded for critical transportation projects around the state, four within Door County.

The issue pertains to the 2019-21 biennial budget bill that Evers signed July 3, 2019, with several vetoes. Less than a month later, three taxpayers filed suit, claiming that Evers had exceeded his constitutional authority to partially veto appropriation bills. 

The state’s highest court decided July 10 that three of those vetoes were unconstitutional. One was for a local roads-improvement fund. The court ruled that Evers’ partial veto changed that fund into a fund for local grants or local supplements, according to the ruling. 

Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) said that $90 million had been written into the budget originally to go to local roads, and the program was always going to be a grant program. 

“There was nothing in that [Supreme Court] decision that should eliminate those grants,” Kitchens said. 

Nevertheless, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) has contacted the awardees by letter, letting them know that the high court’s decision could affect the Multimodal Local Supplement program grants.

“We’re in the process of reviewing whether the recent ruling will have an effect on the current projects,” said Ryan Spaight, a WisDOT signatory on the letters. Beyond that, Spaight said questions had to be directed to Public Affairs. Two calls went unreturned.

The program was expected to use one-time, general purpose revenue funds in the amount of $75 million to fund 90 percent of the eligible costs of local projects, with local governments providing a minimum of 10 percent. The competitive grants could be used on road, bridge and other transit projects, including bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. 

More than 1,600 applications vied for the money, with only 152 communities across the state winning the awards earlier this year. The awardees included 84 towns, 34 cities and villages, and 34 counties. 

The four projects funded within Door County went to the county, Town of Brussels, City of Sturgeon Bay and Village of Egg Harbor. Door County was awarded $450,100 for improvements to the County J bridge; Brussels $142,889.85 for improvements to Cemetery Road; Sturgeon Bay $200,000 for South Neenah Avenue; and Egg Harbor $1 million for a multimodal road, bike and pedestrian project on Church Street, parallel to Highway 42.

The Village of Egg Harbor agreed to match its $1 million award with another $1.6 million. For context, Village Administrator Ryan Heise said its annual operating budget isn’t even that much, at a little more than $1 million. The project included biking and pedestrian facilities and would reduce traffic congestion, improve safety for all users and reduce stress on the village’s parking availability while creating a more walkable, bikeable community. 

“It’s a good project, and now, unfortunately, it’s unclear with this grant being in jeopardy whether the [village] trustees will go forward,” Heise said.

The village had already borrowed for the engineering work and had completed the 30 percent design phase.

“We were working into our 60 percent design, so we’re pretty far along,” Heise said. “So essentially, that’s a loan we have to pay back,” regardless of whether the state follows through with its funding. “Not to mention the time for the grant writing,” Heise said. “Again, it’s extremely competitive, and we were just so thrilled to receive it. It was really meaningful to us.”

Heise has asked state representatives to express their concern and send messages to Madison.

“The hope is the money doesn’t get reshuffled, and we don’t have to resubmit,” he said.  

Kitchens said he saw no reason why the decision would require communities to resubmit. As it stood before the partial vetoes, there was $90 million rather than $75 million, and it was intended for local roads.

“It’s just for roads and more money, so hopefully it shouldn’t impact the local projects,” Kitchens said.