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Federal highway plan rolls toward deadline

Sean Ryan
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Wisconsin’s fragile status as a winner in federal transportation payments is at stake as construction associations pressure Congress to pass a new law to pay for roadwork.

“The ideal would be for Congress and the administration to come to agreement on a long-term transportation package that provides adequate transportation revenue, and that Wisconsin maintains the current formula,” said Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

The federal plan to pay for surface transportation projects gets its money from federal gas tax receipts.

Under the current plan, Goss said, Wisconsin receives more than $1 in transportation money for every $1 it pays in federal gas taxes.

But the federal government is charged with creating a new plan every six years, and the current transportation payment package expires at the end of the month. If the plan gets an overhaul, Goss said, the formula that puts Wisconsin in the black could change, turning Wisconsin into a “donor” state.

The system’s reliance on gas tax receipts, which are shrinking, has national groups pushing to get a new plan on the books before October. But it looks like Congress is more likely to extend the current plan, said Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s highway and transportation division.

“If they don’t do anything,” he said, “if they just kick the can down the road, so to speak, we’ll actually have a drop-off in revenue over the next couple of years.”

An extension is OK for Wisconsin, Goss said, and even better if the federal government supplements gas tax receipts with additional budget money. A proposal in the Senate would extend the existing system 18 months and contribute $20 billion in general revenue to transportation, he said.

“In the short term, it’s probably a positive for Wisconsin,” Goss said. “But in the bigger picture, it would be nice if we could get this thing done.”

The downside to extending the current plan one or two years is it creates the kind of uncertainty contractors try to avoid, said Bill Davenport, vice president of communications for the American Concrete Pavement Association. State departments of transportation don’t know how to schedule long-term budgets, and pavers cannot plan the future of their businesses without some idea of how much work will be available in years to come, he said.

Beyond the uncertainty, the existing plan fails to generate enough money to satisfy the demand for transportation projects, Davenport said.

“We’re getting by OK,” he said, “but we really need — our country really needs — more funding, and therein lies the challenge.”

Goss and Deery said they favor taxing drivers for the miles they travel rather than by the gallons of gas they buy. But the technology to track the miles every car travels does not exist, Deery said.

Until it does, the federal government should raise existing fees in the transportation plan that will last until 2015. But, instead of a six-year plan, Deery said he expects the House of Representatives to unveil a three-month extension of the current plan within the next week.

In Wisconsin, Goss said, the state should consider alternatives, such as tolls on interstate highways, to beef up the state transportation budget. But federal laws would have to change to allow such tolls, he said.

“Tolling,” Goss said, “should at least be on the table as part of the conversation.”

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