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EDITORIAL: Lawmakers running on empty for reasons to put off raising gas tax

When it comes to reasons for not raising the state’s gas tax, lawmakers are fast running out of excuses.

Recent years have seen legislators doing nearly everything they could think of to make existing transportation dollars stretch just a bit further and put off an all-but-inevitable increase in the gas tax. The latest of those attempts came last month when the powerful Joint Finance Committee approved a “swap” plan that seeks to concentrate some federal transportation dollars into a relatively small group of projects. The basic idea here was to prevent these projects from coming under federal Davis-Bacon pay requirements, which many of the Republicans who control the Legislature believe artificially inflate construction costs.

This swap plan comes on top of lawmakers’ elimination of Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage laws, which Republicans similarly tend to think make public-works projects cost more than they would otherwise. Separately, lawmakers have eliminated hundreds of positions at the Department of Transportation and required sales of surplus, underused land.

After all these pushes toward efficiency, it’s easy to wonder: How many more of these tricks could lawmakers possibly have up their sleeves? The far more important question, though, is whether everything that has been done so far will make a noticeable difference for Wisconsin’s roadways. Here, a little skepticism is warranted.

For all the words that have been spoken and printed in debates about the state’s transportation budget, the entire situation is really quite easy to summarize using a few simple numbers.

Wisconsin’s gas tax – still the state’s primary means of raising money for transportation projects – has stayed at 30.9 cents a gallon since 2006. Meanwhile, in the ensuing decade, the cost of various highway-construction components went up by 46.5 percent, according to a memo the state’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau released in 2016.

This has come at a time when lawmakers have become increasingly leery of borrowing for transportation projects. Debt anxieties in the latest budget debate led Republicans to approve the lowest level of bonding seen in any state transportation plan since the state’s 2001-03 budget.

The results are easy to guess. The state has nearly $246 million less set aside in its current budget for its highway-improvement program than it had in its previous plan from two years ago. That’s money not only for “megaprojects” in the southeast corner of Wisconsin but also any other major highway or bridge elsewhere in the state.

To be sure, the state has found a way to give local governments more money for transportation. And, aside from pushing back the schedule for the north leg of the Zoo Interchange reconstruction, there have been no delays to ongoing major roadwork.

But neither has there been any progress toward starting work on other long-needed projects. Plans to rebuild another section of I-94, the one running between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges, have been dropped. And talk of rebuilding Interstate 43 north of Milwaukee has all but evaporated.

Not enough time has passed to know if eliminating prevailing wages and swapping federal dollars out with state and local money on certain projects will really lead to savings. If these policies do end up producing the results their advocates say they will, then taxpayers have every reason to rejoice.

But no one can seriously believe enough money will be found to pay for the reconstruction of I-94 west of Milwaukee – a project whose $1 billion cost estimate is only likely to go up with time – or to fill the many potholes riddling the state’s streets. For those jobs, the only thing that will help is additional revenue.

Of course, there are many ways states can raise money to pay for roads. In Wisconsin, the usual means has been the gas tax. And that’s exactly what lawmakers should turn to again, at least in the short term.

For all its unpopularity, the gas tax has at least three undeniable merits:

  • It’s familiar, meaning nobody has to get used to the idea of paying an entirely new sort of tax, fee or toll;
  • It’s already being levied, meaning the state can raise more money from it without having to set up an entirely new collection apparatus; and
  • It’s a very close approximation to a user fee, meaning it’s paid almost entirely by people whose use of the roads leads to the most damage and the greatest need for expansion and repair projects.

Sure, politicians can always find excuses for avoiding the sorts of choices that could make them unpopular at the polls. But anyone who is up for re-election this November should keep this in mind: As much as voters may hate paying gas taxes, they also hate seeing their vehicles damaged by bumpy, crumbling roads.

At some point, people living in this state are going to start wondering if all the policies lawmakers have adopted in recent years in the name of efficiency were really just means of putting off the inevitable. At some point, they’ll want more than excuses.

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