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Gas tax, driver’s fee increases recommended (UPDATE)

Traffic on southbound Interstate 94 passes through Milwaukee on Wednesday. Members of the state's Transportation Finance and Policy Commission are recommending a gas tax increase to help pay for road infrastructure needs. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A bipartisan task force’s recommendations to raise a variety of Wisconsin’s driving-related taxes and fees are unlikely to find much traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has signaled it wants to take a different road in getting money for infrastructure upgrades.

The Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, created by the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 to study the state’s transportation system needs and how to fund those, issued its final report Wednesday.

The recommendations, which include a gas tax increase, would generate nearly $4.8 billion over 10 years to pay for road, bridge, airport, bicycle and other transportation-related projects. The average driver would pay $120 more a year.

Doing nothing will result in serious deterioration of the state’s highways, increased urban congestion and reduced service levels for public transit, the task force warned.

Walker has already sworn off raising the gas tax and instead signaled he was looking at using general fund money to help pay for transportation needs. Walker and state Republican leaders have generally taken a dim view to raising any tax or fee.

Still, members of the task force, including Walker’s appointed head of the state Department of Transportation, urged the Legislature to take a serious look at its proposal that relies on higher taxes and fees.

“Is it an uphill fight? Absolutely,” said former state representative and Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, a member of the task force.

Walker’s spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokesman said he would review the proposal, but did not comment on its merits. A spokeswoman for Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had no immediate comment.

The report calls for:

— Raising the gas tax 5 cents per gallon, the first increase since 2006, which would bring in $159 million a year. The tax currently is 30.9 cents a gallon.

— Creating a new mileage-based registration fee of 1.02 cents-per-mile up to 20,000 miles for cars and light trucks. The first 3,000 miles would be free, meaning the fee would top out at $204, compared to the $75 flat fee now. That would raise $228 million annually.

— Increasing the driver’s license fee by $20 to $54 to bring in $16.1 million a year.

— Raising by 73 percent the annual registration fees for vehicles weighing over 8,000 pounds. That would raise $85 million a year.

— Eliminating the sales tax exemption on the trade-in value of vehicles, bringing in nearly $92 million a year.

The group rejected the possibility of toll roads, saying current federal regulations made them not feasible.

Antaramian said policy makers must take a serious look at the state’s transportation system needs and the importance the system plays to economic development.

“The options you have are limited,” he said in reference to the money.

Democratic state Rep. Robb Kahl, a member of the commission and former mayor of Monona, said the state’s long-term transportation needs can’t be met by tapping the general fund and issuing more bonds. How to pay for the needs is a “debate we need to have,” he said.

Under any scenario for the future, without raising more money, the state will not be able to pay for all its transportation expenses, said Mark Gottlieb, DOT secretary.

The recommendations were approved by the group unanimously with no dissenting report.

Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who described himself as a “token liberal” on the panel, said he would have liked to see less road building proposed. Still, he supported the call for a 21 percent increase in public transit, a 40 percent increase in bike and pedestrian paths and recommendations for regional transit authorities.

Release of the report comes as the Legislature is prepared to pass a constitutional amendment that would bar diverting money from the state’s transportation fund for other spending. It already passed the Legislature last session and once it passes again, as is required for any proposed constitutional amendment, it will be put before voters for approval.

The commission supports that amendment.

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