For nearly three decades, Thomas Chesmore has jockeyed with other commuters and trucks on Interstate 39-90 to get to his day job as a mechanic at the Simmons Manufacturing mattress factory on Janesville's south side.

Now Chesmore, the mayor of Milton, says the time has come to widen the heavily used corridor between Beloit and Madison, relieving congestion and making the area more attractive to business.

"It's nuts," Chesmore said of the traffic, which squeezes from three northbound lanes in Illinois to two in Wisconsin. "When I started driving that road 28 years ago, there was minimal traffic except on holidays. Now every day is like a holiday there. It's bumper to bumper."

But fixing the highway won't be easy, cheap or quick.

The state studied the idea earlier this decade but hasn't committed money for the project that could cost between $700 million and $1 billion and be one of the largest in the state, according to Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville.

The project would replace existing pavement along the 45-mile corridor, add a third lane in each direction, replace two bridges over the Rock River and reconstruct 11 interchanges.

By comparison, the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee - where two Interstates and a spur highway intersect in a dense downtown - cost about $800 million to rebuild. The 32-mile expansion of Interstate 94 now under way between Milwaukee and the Illinois border is budgeted at $1.9 billion, according to state officials.

At the earliest, construction on I-39-90 likely wouldn't begin until 2015 or 2016. And when the project does start, it probably will take four to six years to complete.

The pavement on the section of Interstate is nearing the end of its useful life and increasing traffic counts indicate a need for more lanes, said Joe Olsen, director of the DOT's Southwest Region. It's unclear when the construction would happen if no one lobbied for the improvements.

"We address them as we can get to them," Olsen said.

At the moment, no funding is available for the project, but some hope it can be placed on the DOT's schedule and receive state and federal funding.

"We can't afford not to do this," Sheridan said. "This project will certainly benefit the state-line area but this is a main artery of the state. We think it will be good for the economy across the state."

Sheridan will appear Monday at a Janesville rally along with other business and government leaders from Rock County who are part of Forward Janesville's I-39-90 Now Coalition.

The Janesville area has been hit hard in recent years by the closing of the General Motors assembly plant and other related industries, and this road project is seen by some as a way to sustain a rebound.

Leaders of the group say the project would make the highway safer, the area more attractive for business development, and aid the state's tourism industry, which draws many of its visitors from south of the border.

"When you cross the border, there might as well be a sign that reads, ‘Here is where modern infrastructure ends,'" said Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville. "If you don't talk about something like this, it might get done eventually, but by talking about it to people who make decisions, you're only improving your case. We've tried to get really aggressive."

The state funded a study of the project in 2001, but since then, the DOT hasn't had the money for the project, said Chris Klein, executive assistant for Frank Busalacchi, the state's transportation secretary.

An environmental impact statement is being prepared for the federal government. If approved, the project could be eligible for up to 80 percent federal funding. It would then go through an approval process at the state level, which would require a recommendation to the Legislature by the Transportation Projects Commission.

Projects can't get on the state's construction schedule unless there is money to fund the project, said Klein, "which is why we haven't had a TPC meeting. We've never been able to have a TPC meeting because we couldn't afford to start construction."

Rock County officials say the project would be an investment for the entire state.

Beloit, a city of 37,000 people, has more than 500 acres available in industrial park land and this summer will complete a $10 million road improvement project for the industrial area. City Manager Larry Arft says Illinois has expanded its portion of the Interstate to six lanes, so traffic bottlenecks at the border will only get worse for northbound motorists. Standstills are not uncommon during peak periods, said Arft.

"This is the gateway not to just Beloit and Rock County," Arft said. "It's the gateway to the Dells and to northern Wisconsin. A lot of the state's recreation is dependent on the corridor."

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