WisDOT photo.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes challenged his fellow Dem U.S. Senate candidates to go on record over whether they support the expansion of a section of I-94 in Milwaukee County after he was asked at a forum about his opposition to the project.

Dems Sara Godlewski, Alex Lasry and Tom Nelson said they believed the state could look at expanding the interstate to eight lanes from six between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges while also investing in other transportation options.

A member of the audience at yesterday’s forum in the Wisconsin Dells hosted by the pro-transportation infrastructure Construction Business Group asked Barnes about his break on the issue with Gov. Tony Evers, whose Department of Transportation has recommended the expansion.

The event was closed to the public and media. But a source provided WisPolitics.com a recording of the hour-long discussion with the top four Dem U.S. Senate candidates.

Barnes argued repairs and upgrades to the section of interstate should be addressed without expanding it to eight lanes. He added other priorities deserved to be funded, such as structurally insufficient bridges. The I-94 expansion is expected to cost more than $1.2 billion.

Barnes invited those who support it to meet with him, saying they likely had more in common than not and there was room for compromise.

“Even if we disagree on something, I’m going to be straight up with you. We’re going to have a conversation,” Barnes said.

Moderator John Gard, president of the Gard Business Group and a former GOP Assembly speaker, asked the other Dems on the stage if they wanted to weigh in after Barnes insisted his rivals should have to take a position.

Nelson, the Outagamie County exec, said he believes considering a project like the I-94 expansion has to take into account the legacy of the interstate system. That includes the lack of consideration planners had for interstates running through communities of color. He also bemoaned the demise of a project a dozen years ago to connect Madison and Milwaukee by rail, saying that would now be well on its way to expanding toward Minneapolis.

Barnes said Nelson didn’t answer the question as the two started going back and forth before Lasry cut in.

Lasry, on leave from his job with the Milwaukee Bucks, said the expansion will be “great” to alleviate a traffic bottleneck and create jobs. But he also argued for more federal resources to provide transportation options such as rail to take people across the state without driving a car.

Nelson insisted Lasry’s comments mirrored what he said and the reason Barnes was asked the question was because “He is the lieutenant governor. This is part of your responsibility.”

Gard then stepped in again, and Godlewski cracked a joke about the tense exchange before saying she agreed with Lasry and the state shouldn’t be looking at infrastructure as an “either-or.” The state treasurer added the federal government needs to provide more funding for infrastructure, adding the state’s ability to transport goods is a key factor in building industry and creating jobs.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, didn’t respond to an invitation to attend, according to sponsors. The Dem primary is Aug. 9.

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