If you want good roads, you have to pay for them.
It’s not just the politicians in Madison and Washington, D.C., who have failed to learn that lesson.
It’s the people of Wisconsin, too.
The latest Marquette Law School poll, released last week, found that nearly two-thirds of respondents — 64 percent — said the roads where they live are in fair (34 percent) or poor (30 percent) condition.
That’s not surprising, given that Gov. Scott Walker has reduced spending on transportation during his eight years in office while refusing to increase the state’s gas tax or vehicle-registration fee, which are the biggest source of money for road maintenance and construction.
Wisconsin now ranks near the bottom — 44th out of the 50 states — for road quality.
Changing this will require more than scrutinizing projects for savings, though that’s certainly worth pursuing. It will require more money from motorists in the form of user fees.
Unfortunately, nearly as many people who say their roads are in bad shape also say they don’t want to pay more to improve them.
The same Marquette poll, which surveyed 1,000 registered voters throughout the state this month, found that close to two-thirds of respondents — 61 percent — oppose higher gas taxes and registration fees. Not quite a third — 32 percent — favor higher user fees to increase spending on roads.
Even among those respondents who think roads are in poor condition, fewer than half — 48 percent — support higher fees to improve the pavement.
So maybe Wisconsin drivers have the bad roads they deserve.
But conditions are only going to get worse, because even our current and inadequate spending at the state and federal levels are propped up by excessive borrowing. Wisconsin was spending 11.5 percent of its transportation revenue on debt payments before Gov. Walker came into office in 2011. Eight years later, the state is spending 21 percent of its transportation dollars on debt payments.
So even if we keep collecting the same amount of money as we used to, it won’t go as far because more and more is getting syphoned away. And if anything, the current state gas tax of 32.9 cents a gallon, which has been flat since 2006, is only going to bring in less revenue in the future. That’s because more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles will use either less gas than current ones or none at all.
It’s time to get real.
The simplest way to bring in more money is for Wisconsin to raise its gas tax for the first time in a dozen years. But a better plan would be to charge motorists by the number of miles their vehicles travel each year. The governor’s own study commission recommended that five years ago, along with higher fees on big trucks, which cause the most wear and tear on roads.
Open-road tolling on the interstate system is another strong option. As the gas tax becomes less capable of raising money, tolling would keep out-of-state tourists and over-the-road trucks contributing to the highways they regularly use.
Despite the public’s apparent disdain for higher fees, responsible voters should recognize that inflation and more traffic increase costs. They should vote for candidates who have the courage to support a responsible transportation plan.
At the same time, politicians must show real leadership. Often, that requires making hard decisions that may not be popular but are nonetheless necessary.
Without more revenue, Wisconsin’s roads will continue to crumble.