By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Federal aid for Wisconsin highways dropped by 3.6 percent, nearly $28 million, over the five years ending in 2013, according to data obtained by The Associated Press, exacerbating the state’s woes in finding money for road projects.
Wisconsin’s loss wasn’t as large as some of its neighboring states — Minnesota saw a nearly 33 percent drop because of unique circumstances, Michigan an 8 percent decline and Illinois a 6.4 percent dip, according to Federal Highway Administration data. But the drop doesn’t help Wisconsin lawmakers fighting over how to pay for the state’s road work.
Looked at another way, Wisconsin’s drop off in federal highway money has actually been more precipitous than the five-year figure suggests. Over the past four years, it’s fallen nearly 10 percent from a high of about $833 million to $750.6 million in 2013.
“We have gas taxes, which are stagnant. We have transportation construction costs, which are going up. And then we’ve got federal revenue, which is declining. All of those is a toxic formula,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said. “We’ve got to take matters into our own hands.”
States rely on aid from the trust fund to cover about 80 percent of work on state highways, U.S. highways and interstates. Of the $710.8 million Wisconsin received in the 2013 fiscal year, more than half went to state highway repairs, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. About $50 million went to bridge projects.
Asked how the decline in aid has affected projects, Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokeswoman Peg Schmitt would say only that the agency manages and prioritizes projects according to funding.
Created in 1956, the federal highway fund is built through federal taxes on gas and diesel fuel. Congress divides the money among the states through appropriation bills.
More fuel-efficient vehicles on the road over the last five years has led to dwindling tax revenue, forcing Congress to supplement the account with general fund dollars. The latest extension, signed in August, transferred $9.7 billion to the fund. That extension expires in May. President Barack Obama’s administration has proposed a $478 billion bill that would keep the fund going for another six years using money from gas taxes and a new tax on U.S. companies’ foreign earnings.
Wisconsin uses a similar mechanism to fund its share of road projects, funneling gas taxes and vehicle registration fees into a transportation account. But the same dynamics of dwindling taxes afflicting the federal fund have been playing out here as well.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has supplemented the transportation account with transfers from the state’s general fund and increased bonding. State DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb asked Walker in November for an additional $751 million generated through a higher gas tax — the tax has stood at 30.9 cents per gallon since 2006 — and new fees on hybrid and electric vehicle drivers.
Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, instead has called for borrowing an additional $1.3 billion for road projects.
GOP legislative leaders say that’s too much borrowing and they want a long-term solution for money for roads.
Vos has proposed raising vehicle registration fees based on mileage driven; registration fees for passenger vehicles have stood at $75 annually since 2008. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, hasn’t ruled out such an increase but has warned that if lawmakers can’t raise more money they’ll have to cut projects.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, is the co-chairman of the Legislature’s powerful finance committee, which will revise Walker’s budget plan before passing it on to the full Assembly and Senate. He said the loss of federal money isn’t “what’s driving the train” on Wisconsin’s transportation money problems. The solution in Wisconsin will have to be a mix of spending reductions, slowing down projects and what he called “some type of revenue enhancer” constituents will accept, he said.
“If you’re a (lawmaker) from wherever in Wisconsin,” he said, “and you have a choice of the project in your area not happening or maybe a small increase in the registration fee, that’s a decision all legislators are going to have to make.”