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WisDOT proposes delays in light of deficit (UPDATE)

A worker carries wood for a concrete pour at the Greenfield Avenue/Highway 59 bridge work site Tuesday in West Allis. The $15 million project to reconstruct the bridge over Interstate 894/U.S. Highway 45 is tied to the Zoo Interchange reconstruction. Transportation officials have proposed delaying road work to balance a looming deficit in the state's transportation fund. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — State transportation officials released a new plan Monday to delay reconstruction work on southeastern Wisconsin’s freeways and scale back road aid to local governments in hopes of closing a looming deficit in the state’s transportation fund.

The fund is the state’s major source of money for highway improvements and maintenance, aid to local governments for road work, the State Patrol and the Division of Motor Vehicles. Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 executive transportation budget estimated the fund would finish fiscal year 2015 with a $12.6 million deficit.

But the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau released projections late last week that show a $63.5 million shortfall in the fund on June 30, 2015, thanks largely to dwindling gas tax revenue. The state Department of Transportation, a Walker cabinet agency, put out the new plan a day before the Legislature’s powerful finance committee was scheduled to review the governor’s transportation budget. WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said the plan is meant as a guide for lawmakers as they grapple with the deficit.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, one of the committee’s two co-chairs, said the suggestions look reasonable but acknowledged the state must find more stable ways to fund road building as more people turn to fuel-efficient vehicles and the gas tax dries up.

“We’re dealing with it by prioritizing,” Nygren said. “Within the environment in which we’re living, it’s the best possible scenario.”

The plan calls for saving $19 million by pushing back money for an Interstate 94 interchange upgrade in Milwaukee County until the next budget. The interchange reconstruction is part of a larger multi-year project to upgrade the interstate between Milwaukee and the Illinois border.

The agency also wants to delay reconstruction work on a portion of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange, saving $14 million; cut $7.3 million from a program that provides money for major highway projects in the first year of the budget but restore it in the second; cut $4.3 million from road aid for local governments in year one and restore it in year two; reduce money for a Milwaukee-to-Chicago Amtrak passenger rail line by $1.1 million across the two-year spending plan; and cut $900,000 from a program designed to reduce congestion.

The agency went on to suggest cutting $2.5 million from payments that go to municipalities for maintaining state highways and pushing back hiring 24 new State Patrol vehicle inspectors until fiscal year 2015.

“WisDOT believes (the plan) provides a fair and reasonable path forward that addresses the most pressing needs of the state’s transportation system in a fiscally responsible way,” Schmitt said.

Lawmakers have been worrying about the transportation fund’s solvency for years. The fund consists largely of gas tax and vehicle registration revenue, but people have been driving less in more fuel-efficient cars and registering fewer vehicles.

The fiscal bureau estimated people are expected to buy 276 million fewer gallons of gas and diesel over the biennium than Walker’s administration thought, resulting in a loss of $83.5 million in revenue. The bureau also projected registration revenues will ring in at $5.3 million less than Walker planned.

A bipartisan commission Walker and the Legislature appointed in 2011 to examine the state’s transportation funding needs recommended raising the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, increasing driver’s license fees and creating a registration fee based on miles driven.

Republican leaders have said they won’t increase the gas tax and have ignored the rest of the recommendations. Walker’s budget instead shores up the fund by transferring $55 million from the state’s general and petroleum inspection fund and authorizes $994 million in new borrowing for transportation projects.

It’s unclear how much of a long-term impact the agency’s plan might have on the state. WisDOT officials left the borrowing authorization alone. The rail line cut would have next to no effect, according to the fiscal bureau; Amtrak’s contract is expected to cost $1.1 million less than when Walker introduced his budget in February.

Most of the program cuts would be restored in the second year of the 2013-2015 budget, and the Milwaukee projects should still be completed on schedule, DOT officials said.

Both the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and the Wisconsin Counties Association support the plan, even though it could result in fewer jobs for road builders and delays in filling pot holes or plowing snow. Still, Jon Hochkammer, the counties association’s legislative director, called the plan “a Band-Aid approach” and implored lawmakers to find a long-term solution.

A spokesman for Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, one of the finance committee’s two co-chairs, didn’t immediately return a message.

Nygren said lawmakers likely will revisit the commission’s ideas as the economy improves.

“It’s not a good time to go back to others and ask for more,” he said. “(But) those ideas and others will be debated.”

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