By Craig Thompson
As the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance continues to work its way through Wisconsin’s two-year state budget, the transportation portion of that budget remains up in the air.
Actually, it appears to be a hot mess.
In early 2014, Gov. Scott Walker gave Mark Gottlieb, WisDOT transportation secretary, a “broad mandate” to solve the growing problem of paying for transportation infrastructure. In fact, he said he hoped to find a breakthrough solution that could lead the nation.
In November, Gottlieb presented a bold package that consisted of adjusting the gas tax as well as some innovative new ways to raise sustainable revenue.
But when the governor submitted his budget in February, it contained none of those recommendations. No breakthrough solutions. Just a plan to borrow more. A lot more — $1.3 billion more. That amount would leave Wisconsin in a position where about 25 cents of every dollar we raise in user fees would have to go to pay the debt service – leaving us with even fewer dollars available in the next budget to maintain our infrastructure.
The legislature has been reluctant to increase our debt by that much. But every solution that has been floated as a way to pay for our ongoing needs is rejected by the governor’s office.
In the meantime, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance submitted a report that was commissioned by the Local Government Institute where it stated that Wisconsin’s highways are now in the bottom third of the country.
Fourteen states have decided in the last two years to adjust their user fees. Most recently our neighbors in Iowa raised their gas tax by 10 cents. That was despite the fact that it already costs the average driver in Iowa well over $100 a year more in gas tax and vehicle registration fees. In truth, drivers in every state in the Midwest pay considerably more when you look at those two user fees than we do in Wisconsin.
If we think Wisconsin can simply find efficiencies in order to improve our infrastructure without additional funds we may want to think again. A recent study showed that Wisconsin has the lowest construction cost per mile, as well as the lowest cost to maintain our highways, in the Midwest.
So, where do we go from here?
If the governor is truly taking any registration fee or gas tax increase off the table and if the legislature is truly unwilling to emulate the federal government and put it all on the credit card, then the debate becomes how to best manage the delays.
The governor has been clear that he wants the Zoo Interchange to stay on schedule. It is the busiest interchange in the state and many businesses, as well as the Medical College of Wisconsin, have made plans based upon that timetable. Not to mention the disruption that this project is already causing would drag on for additional years.
On the other hand, if we keep the Zoo Interchange on schedule without adjusting our user fees or increasing our debt, then projects from Kenosha to Hayward and Eau Claire to Green Bay will be pushed back at least a couple years. That doesn’t even begin to mention the county, town and city roads that will continue to deteriorate.
In many parts of the state that means more roads and bridges becoming weight-restricted during certain times of the year. And that means increasing the cost of doing business for agriculture, timber and manufacturing.
I don’t envy our state legislators. Due to the conditions set forth, they get to choose from a few very bad options.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Other states have found solutions. Maybe there is still time for Wisconsin to as well.