Just Fix It Wisconsin
Green Bay Press-Gazette Editorial: Long-term roads funding needed 5/28/2016
5/28/2016, Green Bay Press-Gazette – Memorial Day weekend is a busy time on the state’s interstates and highways, especially as travelers head north and use smaller and smaller roads to reach their getaway destination.
About 755,000 Wisconsinites will be traveling 50 miles or more this three-day weekend, according to AAA-Wisconsin, a 2.2 percent increase over last year.
However, the state of many of those roads is getting worse as the state of Wisconsin struggles to find a politically acceptable way to fund road maintenance and construction.
Wisconsin’s Transportation Development Association seeks a long-term solution to transportation funding in its #JustFixItWI campaign. The TDA is a coalition of businesses, labor unions, and citizen and local government groups that advocate for transportation improvement.
The TDA held a roundtable discussion Tuesday at Foth in De Pere, and the chorus from the choir was clear: The attendees agreed that our state roads need improvement.
Seventy-percent of Wisconsin roads are in poor or mediocre condition and we have 1,970 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, giving us the third-worst roads in the nation.
What the attendees didn’t agree on is how to pay for that improvement.
It’s a big issue for the next Legislature. Gov. Scott Walker and legislators punted on the issue in the current budget, approving a stopgap solution. It’s an issue that needs to be on voters’ radar as we head into state campaigns this summer and fall.
Walker has rejected increases in user fees, such as the gas tax, unless they’re offset with tax cuts. Also, critics argue that fuel-efficient vehicles cut into revenues from a gas tax.
So Walker submitted a two-year budget last year that called for $1.3 billion in bonding. Republicans, who hold majorities in both houses of the Legislature, didn’t like that idea. Even road construction groups, which want to build highways, didn’t like it.
The proposal was cut to $850 million, with $500 million available immediately. The Joint Finance Committee was put in control of the rest — $200 million of which was available in 2015 and $150 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Joint Finance in November approved borrowing all of the $350 million, instead of trying to hold a second vote later.
The move avoided delaying some big road projects that were already underway.
But it didn’t provide the state with any long-term solution.
That’s what members at the TDA roundtable were grasping for.
That’s what Joint Finance called for when it approved the borrowing in November.
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Many people prefer some sort of user fee because those who use the amenity help pay for its upkeep and expansion.
Toll roads are an obvious example, but an unpopular one. Fifty-five percent of those polled by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce opposed toll roads. Those same respondents were more amenable to paying higher taxes or fees (54 percent).
The gas tax and vehicle registration fees account for most of the money in the transportation fund. The problem is: No one in the Legislature apparently wants to vote for a tax or fee increase.
They may think it’s bad politics, but it’s better than borrowing and having taxpayer money go toward interest on millions of dollars of bonding. In 2007, borrowing costs accounted for 10.3 percent of the state transportation fund revenues; it’s now at 21 percent, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
The gas tax used to be indexed to inflation, but the Legislature ended that in 2005, under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. If the gas tax had increased according to inflation over those years, it would have increased 6 cents a gallon. The WMC estimated a 5-cent increase in the gas tax would return $160 million a year to the transportation fund.
If the vehicle registration fee increased from $75 to $100, about $87 million would be realized each year.
Meanwhile, we’re hitting the road as gasoline prices have been around $2 a gallon.
Towns especially face a big challenge. Their road funding keeps dropping as subdivisions rise on former farmland. The added traffic on rural roads combined with agricultural equipment that uses them to get from farm to field and they’re seeing some roads deteriorating quicker than expected.
State residents have an opportunity to demand answers from candidates running for the Legislature this fall.
With elections in November for the whole Assembly and Senate seats in the even-numbered districts, voters must ask their candidates where they stand on transportation funding.
Work on the next two-year budget is less than a year away. We don’t want more taxpayer money tied up in debt service.
Candidates need to tell voters how they’d fund transportation, or the road to Madison could be a bumpy one.
How would you suggest the state increase its transportation funding? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “transportation” in the subject lime. They might be used in a future column.