Archived Coverage

Highway funds: Too much or too little? 10/31/2015

October 31, 20105 – Sheboygan Press – Were it not for the lawsuit over State 23, work on the highway would have started this year.

Of course, there’s also a chance it could have stopped after a few short months. Put in a bind on how to fund numerous highway projects, the state ended up delaying State 23 and several other highway projects because legislators were uneasy borrowing large sums to avoid delay.

While it appears the Joint Finance Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday, Nov. 4, on releasing some of that funding, it will only touch the surface of an ongoing question about how to fund state highways and whether all the projects are necessary.

Lack of priorities

While many in the Sheboygan area have characterized Steve Hiniker’s 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin as rogue environmentalists, the group itself says it has pushed its lawsuit against State 23 not just to preserve certain land surrounding the highways, but also for the sake of fiscal responsibility.

Hiniker said that while most of the state’s transportation funding goes to highways, there’s a greater need to invest in transit and local roads.

“I think what you need to identify is what are the needs of a community?” Hiniker said. “In Milwaukee or Madison, where you have dense population and congested streets and people going short distances, transit is a viable option. In rural areas, the local roads are horrible. The farming economy is terrific, but it does impact local roads. And the taxes that people are paying at the gas pump ought to come back to those local roads.”

More than 55 percent of state transportation annual revenue — about $1.89 billion — goes toward highway projects while only 16 percent goes to local roads.

The projects delayed as a result of the 2015-17 budget — State 23, Interstate 39/90, the Madison Belt Line, State 10/441 and State 15 — come with a cumulative price tag of more than $2 billion over the entire course of the projects.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, doesn’t disagree that more funding is needed for local roads. But he argues highways are hurting for proper funding, too. He notes that 85 percent of state funding spent on highways goes to maintenance and rehabilitation, while the other 15 percent is being spent on expansions. With cuts to state funding, a range of maintenance projects will also be delayed.

“While there’s about five expansion projects that are going to be delayed, there’s about 200 highway rehabilitation projects that are going to be delayed,” Thompson said. “They’re the projects that you spend money on now so you don’t have to do one of these major reconstructions. … So, we’re significantly behind the eight ball, no matter how you look at it.”

State transportation crunch

While Gov. Scott Walker wanted to bond $1.3 billion to keep transportation projects on track, Republicans balked at that level of borrowing and reduced the amount to around $850 million, with the caveat that $350 million would be held in reserves by the Joint Finance Committee. While DOT Secretary Mark Gottleib has made the request to release $200 million this year to shorten delays to the projects, at least one of the members of the committee objected, triggering the need for a formal hearing.

While Assembly Republicans have indicated they want to reduce the funding delays, those on the Senate side of the committee have been reluctant to approve more borrowing.

Thompson understands the hesitance to rely on bonding. He said that when Gov. Scott Walker first announced the $1.3 billion number, his organization said the level of bonding was too high and called for a reduction. They also thought the number set by Republicans in the Legislature was too low.

The issue — raised not just by Thompson, but by a range of other stakeholders — is that short of more bonding, it has become impossible to sustain the current queue of major rehabilitation and expansion projects with the revenue being brought into the transportation fund. A study group commissioned by the state recommended a combination of raising the gas tax and increasing car registration fees to properly fund road maintenance over the coming decades.

The moves haven’t had any traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature. In fact, legislators included a provision in the budget to once again study funding sources for the transportation fund. Thompson said the state already knows what to do, it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger.

“I don’t think it’s as much a fact of not having the right source, it’s a matter of having the will to actually do this,” Thompson said. “We just had 16 states in the last two years adjust that in some form, including our neighbors in Iowa. It’s just a matter of finding the will to do that.”

But Hiniker argues if the state isn’t making the decision to find proper funding for its numerous road projects, it should at least find the will to admit certain projects — such as State 23 — are simply not needed.

“If in fact, after we balance things right [between local and highways needs] and we find out that there are shortages, then we can deal with it,” Hiniker said. “But right now, there’s not a willingness to concede that any of these projects are bad, so DOT had to come up and make an administrative decision because the state wouldn’t make a political decision as to which roads we’re not going to build.”

Editor’s note: This is part four of a four-part series examining the issues surrounding the proposed expansion from two to four lanes of the 19-mile stretch of State 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth.