The battle over how to spend state transportation money is shifting to a bill that would tap the budget for Wisconsin’s pedestrian and bike trails.
State Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, is driving a Joint Legislative Council bill that would boost state aid for trails to the tune of $10 million or 1 percent of the money generated by the state’s motor-fuel tax in the previous year.
“There are people that enjoy motorized and nonmotorized travel in this state every year,” Sullivan said. “We’re talking millions and millions of dollars in tourism and economic impact.”
But siphoning $10 million annually from the motor-fuel tax is drawing fire from road building groups.
“It’s not because we are against trails,” said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. “It’s because we don’t have the resources we need as it is, and the motor vehicle-fuel tax is a resource that is dwindling.”
Wisconsin collected $999.9 million from the tax in 2008, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Projections show Wisconsin getting $958.3 million from the tax in 2009-10 and $960.2 million in 2010-11.
Road building advocates want a complementary revenue source for the motor-fuel tax — the state’s chief generator of transportation money — because changing transportation patterns and economic conditions are yielding less money.
Although Gov. Jim Doyle in the 2009-11 budget pushed for a tax on oil company receipts in Wisconsin, the state Legislature killed the motion and opted to move money from the state’s general budget to help pay for transportation projects during the next two years.
Alternatives, such as tolls, are under consideration, but lawmakers have yet to propose a bill to boost the transportation budget.
Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said the state’s trails are important to quality of life but should not be a priority for motor-fuel money.
“There are a number of diversions as to where that money goes,” he said. “Nine million dollars in a year might not seem like a lot, but you start to worry we’re going to be looking at death by 1,000 cuts.”
“I keep hearing reports about the work that needs to be done on the Zoo Interchange, and that’s a $2 billion budget item,” he said. “If transportation is going to mean more to us than just the internal-combustion engine, then we need to have a serious talk about how we’re going to pay for it.
“People are afraid to make change, and people are afraid to talk about funding sources.”
The committee that created the bill considered using tourism money to pay for trail maintenance, but Sullivan said that would not generate as much money.
“When you’re in the universe of diminished budgets and increased needs, an awful lot of us are going to go and say how unhappy we are with tax burdens,” he said.
Mike Wollmer, executive director of the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation, said people who do not use motorized vehicles deserve consideration.
“There are alternative forms of transportation out there,” he said. “No disrespect to the automobile industry, but I think you’ll find that a lot of people prefer walking or biking, and these trails provide a transportation benefit to people all over the state.”
The 650-mile Ice Age Trail extends throughout Wisconsin. Eventually, it is to cover roughly 1,000 miles. Wollmer said maintenance work on the trail is left mostly to volunteers because state or federal money for upkeep often is in short supply.
“I know taking money from the motor fuels tax is not everybody’s cup of tea,” he said, “but it’s a reasonable idea that should be explored.”