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Transportation budget hits pothole

Bernie Kirschbaum (left to right), Gerardo Reyes and Ron Winchel of Payne & Dolan Inc., Waukesha, pave westbound Highway 12/18, between Verona Road and Whitney Way in Madison late Thursday night. The project will result in new median walls and will accommodate future plans for a crossover lane. A lapse in money for transportation projects statewide could mean less money is available for highway projects. Photo by Tessa Treuden

Bernie Kirschbaum (left to right), Gerardo Reyes and Ron Winchel of Payne & Dolan Inc., Waukesha, pave westbound Highway 12/18, between Verona Road and Whitney Way in Madison late Thursday night. The project will result in new median walls and will accommodate future plans for a crossover lane. A lapse in money for transportation projects statewide could mean less money is available for highway projects. Photo by Tessa Treuden

Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

Wisconsin’s transportation budget faces the latest in a long line of blows — a $49.1 million budget shortfall for 2009.

The state’s Joint Committee on Finance on Thursday will discuss a Wisconsin Department of Transportation plan to help cope with the shortfall: lapsing $33.3 million in major highway development and state highway rehabilitation money for the next year.

A letter by WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi to the Joint Committee on Finance said the lapses would be a one-time adjustment and WisDOT has not designated the money for any projects or to balance any work in line for federal stimulus money.

“Yeah, but that’s still $33 million left in needs that won’t be addressed this year,” said state Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Green Bay. “We’re about as close to rock bottom as you can get.”

State Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, and state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, sent Busalacchi a letter Tuesday indicating the Joint Committee on Finance would not approve the request without further review.

Montgomery, a member of the committee, said the problem goes beyond a quick fix and reaffirms Wisconsin’s need to find alternative sources of money for transportation projects.

“If there’s one thing that will come out of the (Gov. Jim) Doyle legacy,” he said, “it’s the total destruction of a transportation funding system that was envied around the country. This lapse is just the latest on top of $1.2 billion that’s been moved out of the transportation fund for other purposes.”

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin Inc., said while the need for lapses is not surprising, it’s problematic.

He added, “There needs to be an understanding that either we do something or we keep paying the price.”

In recent years, Wisconsin has had difficulty generating money for state road work. Blows to the budget included the shift of money from the transportation budget to the general budget and the state Legislature’s 2006 repeal of gas-tax indexing, an annual gas tax adjustment that keeps pace with inflation and fuel consumption.

One of the few remaining generators of transportation money is the motor fuels tax; but, according to Busalacchi’s letter, the amount generated by the tax in 2009 is lower than expected. Factors such as unemployment have stymied travel patterns.

Making matters worse, the state also faces lower-than-expected vehicle registrations, for which Doyle increased fees in the 2007-09 budget to help counter falling transportation revenue.

Doyle proposed taxing gross receipts of large oil companies as a way of generating transportation money in his 2007-09 and 2009-11 budgets, but the Legislature killed both proposals amid criticism the state would lose millions legally defending the tax.

Montgomery said neither Democrats nor Republicans have made serious attempts to fix the transportation budget problem.

“I wouldn’t mind voting for it if there was a light at the end of the tunnel or I knew we were coordinating plan to fix the broken system we have right now,” he said. “But this is just another shoot-ready-aim thing.”

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