Just Fix It Wisconsin

DOT chief tips hand on possible delays to I-90/39 project 5/26/2016

5/26/2016, Janesville Gazette – Wisconsin is months away from hashing out its next biennial budget, but the prospect of major road project delays has begun to emerge.

At a transportation roundtable Thursday at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Janesville, advocacy group Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin and local business leaders said they’ve learned that if the state doesn’t find a long-term funding solution in the next budget, the Interstate 90/39 expansion and other projects could face delays of up to two years.

That news, they said, rolled out during a presentation state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb gave Wednesday in Madison to area business stakeholders.

The state Department of Transportation confirmed the specter of project delays exists if the state does nothing in its 2017-19 budget to increase revenue to the transportation budget. However, a DOT spokeswoman said the delays are based on “preliminary” numbers.

“We’re in the very early stages of planning the budget, but looking ahead to the next biennium, under current levels of funding, some delays in highway projects will be inevitable,” DOT Public Affairs Director Patty Mayers told The Gazette on Thursday.

Mayers said she did not have immediate access to Gottlieb’s Wednesday presentation, but she said part of it was rooted in baseline projections of DOT funding if the state does not boost revenue in the next budget.

The projection mirrors the DOT’s stance last year after the Legislature whipsawed its way to a budget by cutting roads borrowing and then locking a share of bonds for road projects under control of the Joint Finance Committee.

The move came as the Legislature tried for months to arm wrestle with Gov. Scott Walker, who at the time had drawn a hard line on borrowing and said he would veto new taxes or fees, including an increase in the gas tax.

The budget prompted the DOT to shift deadlines on major, multiphase projects, including the $900 million I-90/39 expansion, delaying the projects up to two years from their original completion dates.

Most of those projects, including the Interstate expansion, received a partial reprieve late last year through bonds the Joint Finance Committee agreed to release to the DOT.

That allowed the DOT to shave off some project delays. The agency said last year the Interstate project would run only a year behind its original schedule instead of two years.

Although the DOT’s preliminary outlook now shows project delays could creep back into the picture, state lawmakers still have not gotten a broad look at any department budgets for the next biennium, and they likely won’t until early next year.

In addition, a report that examines the solvency of the DOT’s finances, which the Legislature ordered last year as part of the current budget, is not due to lawmakers until January 2017, Mayers said.

The state also is awaiting a full audit of the DOT’s project spending, as well as a report that examines the idea of charging tolls on some state and federal highways.

Thursday’s transportation roundtable in Janesville had been planned for weeks, but it followed on the heels of Gottlieb’s presentation Wednesday. The transportation secretary’s news colored discussions at the roundtable.

The Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin has been gathering input at roundtables throughout the state as part of “Just Fix It,” its public awareness campaign to lobby for a boost in revenue for state transportation projects.

The group aims to amass a tome of information from local business and government stakeholders about how road conditions affect commerce, from tourism to agriculture.

The goal, TDA Executive Director Craig Thompson said, is to inform the public and lawmakers of the challenges that commerce faces well in advance of lawmakers digging into the next budget.

At the roundtable, a panel of business and government leaders and dozens of others—mass-transit company managers, tourism industry officials, retail and wholesale operators and freight trucking companies—spoke about what road problems cost them in lost road time, late freight delivery and fleet damage.

Porter Town Supervisor Phil Hamilton said it would take the rural town 104 years to repair all its damaged roads under the steam of its budget alone.

Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag said he thinks the state should consider easing tax levy restrictions it has placed on “local authority” to allow municipalities to more easily pay for road fixes.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, who was at the roundtable, said she was unaware of Gottlieb’s Wednesday statements on road funding.

Loudenbeck is a member of the state’s Joint Finance Committee and was involved in the committee’s decision to release additional escrowed bonding to the DOT late last year.

Loudenbeck said she and other lawmakers are investigating ways to increase transportation revenue, including an increase to the gas tax, a diesel fuel surcharge and higher driver registration fees.

Many stakeholders at the roundtable said they favor increasing the gas tax, although some said a long-term solution to funding would require a blend of fee and tax increases and increased borrowing.

Some lawmakers also want to review the concept of tolls and a per-mile “user fee” based on each resident’s use of state roads, Loudenbeck said.

“I don’t think any one thing can be looked at as a panacea to fix transportation funding. It might have to be a combination of things,” Loudenbeck said.

Some of the measures discussed Thursday have been proposed in special state committee reports, and the Legislature has shot them down.

Walker has final authority on the state budget, and it’s not clear what stance he could take on fee or tax hikes for transportation.

Dan Cunningham, Forward Janesville’s vice president and chief political lobbyist, moderated Thursday’s roundtable. He said he heard Gottlieb’s presentation Wednesday.

Cunningham said he was unsurprised to hear early projections of road funding woes and potential project delays.

“The funding problem really didn’t get fixed long term in the last budget. I guess I have that feeling of, ‘Well, here we go again,’” he said.

Forward Janesville supports a boost in state transportation revenue, in large part so that major projects such as the I-90/39 expansion can be completed without more delays. Still, Cunningham said his group has not officially backed any of the fixes being considered.

“We’re back in the weeds a little until more elements are known, but we are going to be banging the drum on this issue, not only for I-90/39, but for more (transportation) revenue overall,” Cunningham said. “That hew and cry from some of the smaller local municipalities and some of the stakeholders you heard today—that roar—it’s getting louder. It seems like the planets are sort of coming together.”

 1  25