Just Fix It Wisconsin

How will Wisconsin pay for roads? 6/5/2016

6/5/2016, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Last week, Gov. Scott Walker declared that he was flatly opposed to any increase in taxes or fees to pay for the state’s highways without corresponding cuts in other parts of the state budget. OK, but then how does Wisconsin pay for its transportation challenges, especially in rebuilding and maintaining the networks that are vital to the state’s economy?

I wrote about the scope of the transportation challenge in my last column after moderating a panel discussion as part of the “Just Fix It” campaign being pushed by the Transportation Development Association, a statewide alliance of 400 transportation stakeholders.

As I noted in that column, there’s a serious challenge out there. In a nutshell: Roads and bridges around the country are deteriorating because many of them are reaching the end of their useful lives. Given other urgent issues and a reluctance to raise taxes, maintenance issues tend to get a low priority from governments. Gas taxes — the traditional way of paying for roads — are no longer viable because a) they’re not being increased (in Wisconsin, not in 10 years) and b) because more fuel-efficient vehicles use less gas, which is great for drivers but not so great for providing revenue for roads.

Reports by TRIP, a national transportation research group, and a 2013 state commission make compelling arguments for the need to find new answers. TRIP reported that, statewide, 42% of major roads are in mediocre to poor condition; in Milwaukee, it’s 56%; in Madison, 68%. More than 2,000 (14%) of the state’s bridges are in need of repair or modernization.

So what options are out there?

Well, the Legislature could raise the gas tax by, say, a nickel. The upside is that highway users — including those from out of state — will pay more for the roads they use, surely a fair thing. The down side is that legislators (and clearly the governor) generally don’t have the stomach for raising the tax. There’s also the problem that people with, say, electric or hybrid vehicles won’t be paying as much for roads as those of us with regular gasoline engines, which doesn’t strike me as particularly fair.

The state could raise registration fees. It could raise them generally or raise them for heavier vehicles that produce more wear and tear on the highways or for more expensive vehicles. Again, some politicians will refuse to do that even if Wisconsin’s fees are lower than those of some other states. That fee also won’t capture any revenue from tourists on their way to the Dells or Eagle River.

The state could consider tolling, a suggestion that’s been made by politicians as diverse as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former County Supervisor Patricia Jursik. But you need federal permission for that. And my guess is the public — happy with what it considers, wrongly, as free roads — may rise up in arms. Plus, tolling hasn’t eliminated the transportation funding challenge in other states.

I think a vehicle miles traveled system makes some sense. Keep track of the miles you travel via a computer chip and pay a tax on that. Such systems are still in the experimental stage in Oregon and some cities so the jury is still out on how well they would work. And as one of my panelists noted, such systems raise issues of privacy and big government knowing how much you’ve traveled and perhaps even where.

I also think a well-developed and sustainable mass transit system and regional transportation districts need to be part of the answer.

That hardly exhausts the options, but clearly, there are no easy fixes, and each solution has its own problems. A combination of options may work but working out the elements won’t be easy.

Walker’s answer would delay some projects, and that makes sense in some cases. I also get the don’t-raise-taxes mantra. But then what’s the answer for the crumbling roads and potholes and deteriorating bridges all around us? Wisconsin citizens and the Wisconsin economy deserve to know.