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No big fee, tax increases proposed for transportation budget (UPDATE)

Wisconsin’s transportation chief says he won’t ask for any major tax or fee increases in his coming budget request.

Secretary Mark Gottlieb recently told the Wisconsin State Journal that his budget request in September will set a priority on maintaining the state’s bridges and highways instead of expanding well-traveled roads and preserving those that are less traveled.

The proposal will come as a contrast to one Gottlieb submitted two years ago. He then asked for about $750 million in new taxes and fees, including those charged on fuel sales and on new-vehicle purchases. Lawmakers did not adopt those proposals.

This year, Gottlieb said, the priority will be on maintaining bridges and U.S. interstates and highways. But, he acknowledges, that will come at the expense of maintaining less-traveled roads.

Roadbuilders’ hopes now rest with the Legislature, which can always introduce its own proposals calling for more money to be raised for the state’s transportation fund. Terry McGowan, president and business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, called for lawmakers to take up transportation matters separately from the rest of the budget.

He said that as long as legislators vote on transportation spending at the same time as other priorities, their constituents will have a hard time knowing if they supported additional money for maintenance and other work. Having lawmakers instead consider transportation by itself, McGowan said, would make their votes far easier to track.

“That’s the way to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire,” he said. “Constituents will ask, ‘How come our roads aren’t plowed? How come our potholes aren’t filed? How come this road isn’t widened?”

But even if the Legislature does approve a revenue increase, roadbuilders will have a hard time making their case to Gov. Scott Walker. The Republican governor has said repeatedly that he will not support any revenue increase that is not offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Even as Gottlieb was talking about future work, his counterpart at the state Department of Justice was seeking to eliminate a court-imposed roadblock that has prevented progress on a long-planned expansion of Wisconsin Highway 23. Attorney General Brad Schimel filed a notice of appeal calling for reconsideration of U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman’s decision in late April to not allow work to go forward on a $146 million project that would take Highway 23 from two to four lanes between Plymouth and Fond du Lac.

Adelman, who presides over the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, originally put a stop to work on the Highway 23 project in May 2015 after finding that the state’s traffic forecasting and population data needed clarification if they were to be cited as a justification for the project.

Asked this year to reconsider his previous decision and let the work move forward, Adelman said that state officials had once again fallen short when they tried to respond to his objections with new figures and explanations of their methods.

“For these reasons, I cannot find that (the Wisconsin Department of Transportation), when deciding whether to update its traffic forecasts in light of the updated population data, ‘conducted a reasoned evaluation of the relevant information and reached a decision that, although perhaps disputable, was not ‘arbitrary or capricious,’” Adelman wrote in his final order.

The DOJ’s challenge of Adelman’s decision will now go before the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Gov. Scott Walker released a statement Wednesday saying he supports the appeal.

“The proposed four-lane expansion project is crucial for families, communities, and businesses throughout the state,” Walker said in the statement.

Proponents of the expansion project have said it will make Highway 23 safer and aid in the transport of goods and passengers to and from Fond du Lac, Plymouth, Sheboygan and other nearby places. Besides connecting various cities, Highway 23 also crosses Interstate 41 in Fond du Lac County and Interstate 43 in Sheboygan County.

Critics of the project, though, questioned whether an expansion was truly needed, especially given the decrease seen in traffic counts in the years following the recent recession. Economic improvement, though, has brought a rebound in those numbers.

The project was challenged in court by the Madison-based environment group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. Steve Hiniker, executive director of the group, said he is confident the state’s appeal will fail.

He said Highway 23 might just be the beginning.

“If it were held up to judicial scrutiny, the forecasting of DOT would be rejected,” Hiniker said. “And we contend that’s the case on most of the highways that they are projecting to build.”

In contrast, Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said all 1000 Friends has done is slow down a project that will ultimately have to move forward.

“They’ve successfully increased the project cost by delaying this by at least three years,” he said. “So way to go.”

Dan Shaw at The Daily Reporter contributed to this article.


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