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WWWD: What would WisDOT do

Now that we know how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation would eliminate nearly $63.5 million from its 2013-15 budget, what would it do if it had to get rid of $200 million?

It’s not as idle of a question as one might think.

State Rep. Knudson, R-Neenah, actually posed it from his seat on the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee when representatives of WisDOT came before that body in March to discuss the state’s 2013-15 transportation budget.

Specifically, Knudson wanted to know what Mark Gottlieb, WisDOT secretary, would do if he had to cut $200 million from the nearly $1 billion in borrowing called for by Gov. Scott Walker’s transportation budget proposal. Here’s Gottlieb’s answer.

There’s at least one big difference between the plan put forward in the letter and one WisDOT released last week in response to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report estimating the governor’s original budget would lead to a $63.5 million deficit in the state’s transportation fund. It’s that the $200 million Knudson talked about had to come out of planned borrowing, whereas the deficit foreseen by the fiscal bureau could be gotten rid of in various ways.

That difference helps to explain why the plan shown in the letter would result in nothing besides delays in the construction of new roads. Much of the borrowing proposed by the governor would go toward “megaprojects” in and around Milwaukee, the Zoo Interchange taking up about $300 million on its own.

According to the letter, WisDOT officials are hesitant to delay the completion of either the interchange or the Hoan Bridge, a recipient of $200 million under the governor’s budget. The projects, Gottlieb writes, are too important to public safety, traffic flow and the economy to be pushed back.

Another of WisDOT’s priorities is on maintaining highways. That means the only way left to reduce borrowing is to cut or delay new projects, which is exactly what Gottlieb’s letter proposes doing.

Compare that with WisDOT’s plan to close the $63.5 million deficit, which the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is to take up in coming weeks. True, its goal would be met by some delays to scheduled repairs and projects – a part of the Zoo Interchange would be delayed but the entire project would still be completed by 2018 – but not nearly as many as called for in the letter. Much of the savings would instead come from cuts to employee positions and spending on things such as local roads.

It was unclear by the time this blog was written whether, in light of the plan put forward by Gottlieb’s letter, Knudson or any other lawmaker is actually in favor of cutting $200 million from the budget’s transportation borrowing.

But for anyone who is, WisDOT’s letter makes at least one thing clear: If transportation borrowing is reduced without compensating increases in gas taxes or some other type of revenue, the savings will probably come at the expense of new roads.

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