One year ago – almost to the day – I wrote a column reminding everyone that transportation is central to our state’s vibrant tourism industry.
Tourism, along with agriculture and manufacturing, is one of the three main economic pillars holding up our state’s economy. Tourism brings in tax dollars from visitors around the world while also providing our citizens with high-quality vacation opportunities, a variety of recreation choices and entertainment options that are too numerous to count.
Summer is upon us, and “tourism season” is in full swing. Tourism in Wisconsin generates an astounding $19.3 billion in business sales and supports more than 190,000 direct and indirect jobs. And remember: The $1.5 billion in state and local taxes generated by tourism spending in Wisconsin each year lightens the household tax burden by an average of $640.
Wisconsin welcomes tourists with open arms.
A clear majority of Wisconsin tourists drive to their final destinations. These tourists gas up while they are in our state. I’ve yet to hear a complaint about the gas tax from any of our customers, but I regularly hear about the poor condition of our roads and bridges.
I have been in the hospitality industry my entire career. I am proud to have served as chairman of the Governor’s Council on Tourism for more than 13 years. “Badger State Hospitality” is legendary and it continues to draw more and more visitors every year.
This time last year our Governor and lawmakers were grappling with how to deal with Wisconsin’s long-term transportation-funding shortfall.
Unfortunately, the decision to ignore the needs of our roads and bridges and instead continue to postpone tough decisions prevailed.
The budget that passed last fall did not curtail our transportation-funding shortfall.
It did not deal with the deterioration of our state and local roads.
It did not deal with the delays in our previously approved projects.
Those things never changed.
To ensure our economy keeps growing and that we continue to have tax revenues and job opportunities, we need to build up Wisconsin. Keep in mind that visitors to our tourism attractions have choices; they don’t have to come to Wisconsin. They can choose to go anywhere. So why give them a reason to avoid Wisconsin? Why present them with road projects that cause them to sit in traffic for long stretches, dodge orange barrels and lose precious vacation time? If Wisconsin is truly “open for business,” then policymakers and the governor must develop a bipartisan long-term transportation plan so tourists aren’t discouraged from coming to Wisconsin by our poor road conditions.
It’s an election year so politicians and candidates are worried about committing themselves to a specific long-term plan for fear it will harm their re-election chances this fall. That’s too bad. Over the past year, every daily newspaper in Wisconsin has editorialized in favor of finding a bipartisan long-term plan to pay for transportation.
Now is the time for elected officials to do something about our crumbling infrastructure. Transportation money will likely be central in gubernatorial and legislative elections this fall. Let’s hope voters select candidates who are willing to do what must be done. Our roads and bridges cannot wait any longer.
Tom Diehl has been a statewide leader in the tourism industry for more than 50 years. He co-owns Tommy Bartlett Inc. in the Wisconsin Dells with his wife, Margaret. He also serves as the president of DRIVE – Devote Resources, Invest for a Vibrant Economy – www.wisconsindrive.com