A group of state transportation leaders is wrestling with how to raise money to maintain, fix and expand Wisconsin’s aging, ailing network.
From highways to local roads, airports to bicycle paths, the state’s transportation system is in trouble. Unless legislators step in, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation faces a revenue gap that could be $3 billion to $18 billion in a decade, according to department analyses.
The problem spurred state lawmakers to establish an 11-member Transportation Policy and Finance Commission as part of the 2011-13 budget. Gov. Scott Walker and leaders in both houses appointed the group’s 10 voting members. WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb is chairman of the commission but does not vote.
The group’s members, who represent numerous transportation and construction sectors, must produce a report by March 1 recommending statutory changes to streamline and bolster the state’s transportation budget.
Their task is not an easy one. Wisconsin’s highways, which are five decades old, need repairs and upgrades even as they undergo increased wear and tear from freight and other heavy vehicles. But for years, state and federal support for transportation has waned.
In June, Congress passed a 27-month transportation bill that maintained Wisconsin’s federal transportation money at $719 million for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 and raised it to more than $725 million during fiscal year 2014. But commissioners repeatedly have said the bill only kept the state from driving off a financial cliff.
Although more than a quarter of WisDOT’s $6.5 billion budget comes from federal sources, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund is shrinking. Congress hasn’t increased the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax or the 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax since 1993.
At the same time, Americans are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, so they are consuming less gas. That trend likely will continue: The Obama administration is partnering with 13 auto companies to raise fuel economy to 54.5 mpg for lightweight vehicles by model year 2025.
In 2006, Wisconsin did away with indexing its state motor fuel tax, keeping it at 30.9 cents a gallon instead of increasing it with inflation. That decision cost WisDOT more than $300 million since fiscal year 2007, according to WisDOT analyses presented at a commission meeting Wednesday and Thursday.
But increasing the gas tax has been politically unpopular.
“There is no public consensus right now on raising the motor vehicle fuel tax,” said Paul Hammer, director of WisDOT’s Office of Policy, Budget and Finance, who spoke Wednesday to commission members in Madison. “Any effort to raise the tax is not getting any traction. That’s not a Wisconsin issue. That’s a national issue.”
Still, the commission agreed Thursday to discuss recommending that the Legislature reinstate gas tax indexing, including a possible catch-up provision of almost 6 cents a gallon.
“If you don’t want to solve the problem, throw (our) report in the garbage,” said commissioner Robert Cook, of the Madison office of HNTB Corp., an architecture, engineering and construction management firm. “But then it’s on your heads. Because we gave you solutions that work.”
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As an alternative or addition to raising the state gas tax, the commission could recommend ways to collect money based on how far people drive. That approach is called vehicle miles traveled. It is being discussed by transportation analysts nationwide, but no single model has gained widespread acceptance.
The commission discussed but ruled out such high-tech approaches to VMT fees as devices placed in smart phones or vehicle GPS systems. Instead, commission members leaned toward self-reported odometer readings that would count on people disclosing odometer readings whenever a vehicle changes hands.
That measure is cheaper and could be implemented sooner, Hammer said, but it had a catch.
“I think we would have a large number of broken odometers,” he said. “You’d need fairly significant enforcement mechanisms to discourage that.”
Commissioners asked WisDOT to explore ways to audit vehicle owners to make sure they would report their real mileage. One possibility involved obtaining reports through private companies such as Carfax, a web-based supplier of vehicle history reports.
A final option: only assess VMT fees for the highest-efficiency cars, such as the Toyota Prius. WisDOT has estimated it loses $119 per high-efficiency vehicle annually because drivers pay so much less in gas taxes.
Commission members also must decide whether the state should eliminate its gas tax entirely if VMT fees are implemented. While keeping a gas tax would ensure out-of-state drivers help pay for wear and tear on the state’s highways, it also could spell big costs for people with gas-guzzling vehicles who drive long distances.
“Politically, this is hard to sell,” commission member Dave Cieslewicz said. “I think the only way you could sell it is by saying you’re not going to have a fuel tax.”
Commissioners also agreed to further discuss a one-time increase to costs for vehicle registration, titling and driver licenses, or indexing registration fees to inflation.[related-posts numitems=12 collection=”mke_jobtrac” metatag=”categories” value=”Roads/Utilities”]