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WisDOT renews search for ways to pay for transportation

More than a year after a special commission recommended ways to raise money for Wisconsin transportation projects, state officials are hitting reset on the conversation.

Mark Gottlieb, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said Tuesday that a 162-page report released by the state’s Transportation Finance and Policy Commission in January 2013 will serve as the starting point for discussions on ways to raise more money for roads, rail, harbors and airports. But no special deference, he said, will be paid to the commission’s recommendations, including one to raise the state’s fuel tax by 5 cents a gallon.

“We are starting from scratch on that,” he said. “We’re not basing our work off the commission’s recommendations. Although, they are obviously out there.”

The need for more revenue will be one of the main topics during a series of meetings WisDOT will hold throughout the state between April 8 and May 21. Along with informing the public of the importance of roads, rail, harbors and airports, officials will convey their goal of raising money in a way that is both long-lasting and fair to all users of the transportation system, Gottlieb said.

John Antaramian, one of 10 appointees to the state’s Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, said it is disappointing that lawmakers have not acted on any of the recommendations he and his fellow members made in the group’s report, Keep Wisconsin Moving – Smart Investments, Measurable Results. But if the document is at least the starting point for the discussion, he said, the work will not have been in vain.

“If they’re going to start moving on it,” Antaramian said, “then that’s good. They need to do something sooner rather than later.”

The commission was established at the behest of Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature and composed of various representatives of the transportation industry, selected from both sides of the political aisle. Antaramian, appointed by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, had been a Democrat in the state Assembly and later became mayor of Kenosha.

The commission held 14 meetings, as well as listening sessions in various cities, between Oct. 25, 2011, and Jan. 23, 2013, when the final report received approval. In the final report, the members recommended raising the state’s fuel tax, charging drivers at registration time 1.02 cents for every mile they travelled during the previous year, increasing the registration fee for vehicles weighing more than 8,000 pounds and increasing driver’s license fees by $20, among other changes.

Bob Cook, a member of the commission and vice president of government relations at the Kansas City-based engineer and architecture firm HNTB Corp., estimated he and his colleagues put in hundreds of volunteer hours. Never was the expectation, though, that lawmakers would take up the recommendations without making changes, he said.

The need to bring in more money for the system has been an ever-present source of anxiety in recent years. The state’s main source of transportation revenue — fuel taxes — is collected at a fixed rate. That means gasoline and diesel taxes bring in greater revenues only if people drive more.

To prevent the state’s transportation fund from drying up, Wisconsin had once indexed its fuel taxes to inflation. But lawmakers halted that practice in 2006.

WisDOT now is working on new revenue projections, but it estimates that the state’s transportation fund will have a deficit of between $600 million and $700 million in the next budget period, Gottlieb said. Looking further ahead, the commission found that an additional $5.8 billion would be needed during the next 10 years simply to maintain what the state has.

Lawmakers’ answer in recent years has been to borrow more. The state’s current budget allows for the issuance of nearly $1 billion in debt to pay for a variety of projects, including reconstructions of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange and Hoan Bridge.

The governor, meanwhile, has expressed willingness in recent months to consider ways of raising transportation revenue as long as they would not lead to an increase in the net tax burden. Tax cut legislation Walker signed March 24 will lower income and property taxes by about $541 million, creating more room for an increase in transportation revenue that would meet the governor’s criteria.

Gottlieb has said ideas for bringing more money into the transportation fund could be part of the budget proposals WisDOT first presents to lawmakers later this year. Until then, his goal will be to ensure the needs identified by the commission are presented clearly to the public.

“We are basing our questions,” he said, “on what the commission found and what the commission concluded.”

About Dan Shaw, dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com or at 414-225-1807.

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