Just Fix It Wisconsin

Plea for more money: Transportation system underfunded, audience told 2/28/2016

2/28/2016, Tomah Journal – Wisconsin has an underfunded transportation network that needs an infusion of revenue.

That was the message an audience heard at the Monroe County Economic Development Conference Thursday at Fort McCoy.

Speakers described a backlog of maintenance projects that exists from Interstate highways to city and town roads.

Monroe County Highway Commissioner Jack Dittmar said $90 million worth of backlogged maintenance exists in his department alone.

“It’s a disservice to future generations to spend millions and millions on infrastructure and have no plan to maintain it,” Dittmar said. “Hopefully, there are people with the will to get it done. We definitely need to do something.”

Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said in a separate interview that the state’s reliance on the gas tax and registration fees no longer provides sufficient revenue to maintain roads. Lawmakers in 2005 suspended indexing the gas tax to inflation, and revenues have lagged ever since, Gottlieb said. He added that the problem has been compounded by more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Those revenues are not growing as fast as the increasing needs we have to maintain a safe and efficient transportation system,” he said.

He said the problem is widespread.

“The needs are fairly consistent across the board,” Gottlieb said. “If you talk to our partners at the county level and the town level, they say they are not able to make the investments they say they need to make.”

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, told the audience that at least 16 states have increased transportation revenues over the past year and that Iowa recently boosted its gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. He said Wisconsin’s user fees, especially the registration fee, are significantly lower than other states.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce director of government relations Jason Culotta floated the idea of raising the state gas tax by five cents per gallon and increasing the annual registration fee by $25. He said both are merely “inflationary increases.”

“That won’t solve all the issues we’re talking about,” he said.

Gottlieb said the gas tax will likely be a major source of revenue and said it has the advantages of being easier to administer and hard to evade.

He said there isn’t much money to be saved from freezing new projects or expansion. He said over 85 percent of the transportation budget already goes to maintain existing infrastructure

“It’s a little bit of a misnomer that we’re spending so much money on expansion,” he said.