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WisDOT report shows higher debt, lower road spending under Walker administration

A recent Wisconsin Department of Transportation report shows that spending on transportation projects has decreased under Gov. Scott Walker even as debt has ballooned.

The report echos what critics, lawmakers and experts have been saying for years: Wisconsin needs new revenue sources to pay for road projects. WisDOT’s report shows that spending, when adjusted for inflation, has decreased on all of the state’s transportation programs since Walker took office in 2011.

For major highway projects, there was a 31 percent decrease in spending from the state’s 2011-2012 fiscal year; for highway-improvement work, the decrease was 23.8 percent; and for local road projects, it was 13.4 percent. The biggest decrease, though, was seen for freeway projects in southeast Wisconsin, on which spending decreased by 51.1 percent.

Meanwhile, debt service on road projects has increased 66.9 percent since the 2011-2012 fiscal year. And the state’s debt-service payment of $496 million for its current fiscal year is up sharply from the $303 million the state paid in the last year before Walker took office.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said the report shows state officials need to take a second look at how they plan to pay for the state’s long-term transportation needs.

“I think it confirms what the locals have been saying. Even with the increases in the budget they are still down,” Thompson said. “We’re going to have to look at increasing some revenue.”

The report comes as Walker and his Democratic challenger, Tony Evers, prepare to square off in the general election this November. At least some of the candidates’ debates are expected to be about transportation budgets.

Transportation is also a matter of concern to voters. A quarter of the respondents to a recent Marquette University Law School poll said their first- or second-highest priority was improving the condition of roads.

At a ceremony held on Monday, Walker marked the completion of the core phases of the Zoo Interchange project in Milwaukee. Walker boasted that the massive reconstruction job had been finished “on time and on budget,” even though the final leg of that project was deferred in the latest biennial budget, before going on to contend once again that he’s spent $3 billion more than his predecessor on road projects. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has called that figure inaccurate.

As for Walker’s opponent, Evers toured the state last week criticizing Walker’s transportation spending. The Democrat has yet to release a plan of his own, though.

Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, said residents who drive regularly are generally not happy with the condition of roads in Wisconsin. WisDOT’s report, he said, provides evidence that their impressions correspond with reality.

“I believe it validates what people can see out there by traveling the system,” Fedderly said. “I think the failing of the Legislature and the administration is that the attempt to pinpoint a single answer. This progressing has been taking place for several budget cycles.”

Fedderly said the state needs to adjust its system for raising road revenue. State roadways are subject to more wear and tear as agriculture equipment becomes heavier. Meanwhile, electric vehicles are becoming ever more popular, depriving the state of gas tax revenue.

Taxes on vehicles are also lower in Wisconsin than in adjacent states. The owner of a one-year-old, four-door sedan pays an estimated $304 in taxes yearly in Wisconsin. That same person would pay $525 in Minnesota, $497 in Illinois and $405 in Michigan, according to the report. Owners of year-old, four-door SUVs meanwhile pay an estimated $372 in taxes and fees in Wisconsin, whereas their counterparts in all four of Wisconsin’s neighboring states pay more than $600 a year.

“People are not happy with the state of transportation in Wisconsin,” Fedderly said. “The public does not like it. The public will force the issue.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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