With debt on the rise and spending down on state road projects, industry experts can often be heard saying Wisconsin needs a new way of paying for transportation projects.
So far, though, the state’s two gubernatorial candidates have offered little more than platitudes. Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger in November, Tony Evers, have each declined to lay out specific plans showing how they propose to bring in money to repair the state’s crumbing infrastructure.
But if the candidates are searching for ideas, they need not look far. Just two states over, in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, rolled out a plan this week calling for heavy trucks to pay higher tolls in order to raise an additional $1 billion for transportation projects.
Although Wisconsin has no toll roads, Holcomb’s proposal in Indiana bears at least a superficial resemblance to a plan put forward in this state last year. When Wisconsin lawmakers were debating the state’s transportation budget in 2017, some called for operators of heavy trucks to start paying a per-mile fee.
Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. said that, with so many in-state roads in poor shape, he wouldn’t be surprised if such a proposal were to arise again.
Fedderly offered a word of caution, though. He conceded that it’s easy to blame heavy trucks for the condition of in-state roads. But there are bigger considerations.
“The problem is that we tend to try to look for that one solution to fund transportation that doesn’t exist,” Fedderly said. “It’s just one part of the broader answer. Transportation needs to shift to a different methodology than it has in the last 20 years.”
Heavy trucks could be an easy target thanks to the rise of online shopping, which has brought more trucks onto the roads, Fedderly said. Similarly, the number of parcels being delivered in any given year has been increasing rapidly. In every year from 2017 to 2021, it’s expected to go up by between 17 percent and 28 percent, according to a study by the technology firm Pitney Bowes.
The higher demand for deliveries will place local roadways under greater strain, Fedderly said.
“With online shopping, all those commodities that people consume have to travel from a location to another location,” Fedderly said, adding that any increases in shipping costs are likely to be passed on to shoppers.
Wisconsin officials’ now-abandoned plan to charge heavy-truck operators a per-mile fee would have raised $250 million for highways in the current two-year budget period. Supporters of the proposal argued the fees would be easier to impose than alternatives such as tolls or an increase in the state’s gas tax — which has remained at the same rate in Wisconsin since 2006.
But the plan failed to win much support.
Neal Kedzie, president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association, said his group was adamantly against the proposal. He said new per-mile fees would have been unduly burdensome on truckers, many of whom are already struggling with narrow profit margins and a labor shortage. He said, however, that his group would support a “modest” increase as long as other users, like drivers of electric vehicles, are taxed, too.
“If there are going to be any kind of tax increases, it has to be equal across the board,” Kedzie said. “We fought a heavy-truck tax which targeted (commercial motor vehicles) and no one else. This is not a way to approach the situation when the trucking industry pays more than 40 percent of the operating budget on the state and federal levels.”
Meanwhile, Evers and Walker have been reluctant to release plans showing how they propose to pay for the state’s infrastructure. Neither candidate has proposed a way to raise transportation revenue, although Walker has said he wold begin discussing a plan in coming weeks. Evers’ campaign has merely said that “all options are on the table.”
The debate over Wisconsin’s infrastructure looms large for voters, many of whom say the quality of Wisconsin’s roads will influence which candidate they support in November, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. A recent Wisconsin Department of Transportation report was meanwhile an indictment of Walker’s transportation policies, showing spending on roads has fallen in his time in office even as borrowing has increased.
Kedzie, a former state lawmaker, said it’s little surprise Walker and Evers are reluctant to release a transportation plan showing what their proposals would cost specific interest groups.
“I’m afraid that this political hot potato has been kicked back and forth for years. No one wants to take the lead for fear of being criticized,” Kedzie said. “I would think that if they can’t come to any sort of reasonable proposal that they are going to wind up delaying projects as a stopgap measure. That means more delays in projects just to stem the hemorrhaging.”Follow @natebeck9