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Halting raids keeps transportation moving

By Joe Yovino

Over the years, Wisconsin’s transportation budget has been subjected to stale federal regulations and frequent in-state raids.

But now state lawmakers appear poised to shut down the shakedowns.

Tuesday’s vote by the state Assembly to create a constitutional amendment that would prevent raids on the transportation budget passed on a bi-partisan vote of 82-13. Both the Assembly and Senate passed the amendment last session. So now, to be incorporated in the state constitution, the amendment must pass the Senate one more time and then be approved by voters in a referendum in November 2014.

If approved by voters next year, the transportation budget could avoid an estimated $6.8 billion deficit in the next 10 years, according to a report released in January by the Wisconsin Transportation Finance Policy Commission.

That’s good news for the construction industry and beyond, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance at the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

“If it passed, it would be a win for all transportation, not just for roads and road builders, but for all transportation across the board,” Traas said.

The budget has had many forces working against it for many years.

  • It gets the majority of its money, 54 percent, from gas taxes. About 25 percent comes from federal transportation programs, according to the state’s Transportation Finance Policy Commission. The problem is, the federal gas tax has not been adjusted since 1993 when it was increased to 18.4 cents a gallon. Gas prices back then were just more than $1 a gallon; today, prices hover around $3.60.
  • The advent of more fuel-efficient cars means people are topping off the tank less, leading to less tax money.
  • Many of the state’s governors have raided the budget to pay for everything from education to covering deficits. Since 2003, when Jim Doyle took over as governor, more than $1.3 billion has been removed from the transportation budget, $450 million of which never was repaid.

That all adds up to a bumpy transportation future. But Traas said his group is optimistic voters will see the value in ponying up tax money to pay for the state’s infrastructure and transportation needs.

“The polls that I’ve seen show that people will pay an increased tax when they know it’s going toward its intended purpose,” Traas said.

Steve Krieser, executive assistant with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, also is putting his trust in the public.

“We are confident the voters will see the value in ensuring the transportation fund is preserved for transportation-related purposes,” he said.

They have good reason to be optimistic.

In September 2010, Racine County voters overwhelmingly approved an advisory referendum that supported segregating the state’s transportation budget. And many other counties across the state saw similar results two months later in the general election.

Voters most likely will get another chance next year to put the state’s transportation budget on a smooth path and erase its bumpy past.

Joe Yovino is the Web editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at joe.yovino@dailyreporter.com.

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