Just Fix It Wisconsin

George Mitchell: Another fact check on transportation funding 7/25/2016

7/25/2016, Right Wisconsin – “Over the last 20 years, spending on [Wisconsin] highway expansion has increased by 50 percent.”

That’s the claim being circulated by a conservative group.  It contends Wisconsin does not need more transportation revenue, i.e., a gas tax increase, if it cuts back on “expansion” projects.

The 50 percent expansion claim is bogus.

When I asked the group to document its claim it could not provide specific data.  Instead, it referenced a Capital Times article (!) quoting a report from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG).

WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec told me its 50 percent expansion claim was based on growth in expenditures for “major” statewide projects and SE WIS freeway projects.

WISPIRG defines every dollar spent in those categories as “expansion.”  This includes projects such as the Marquette and Zoo Interchanges and the North-South I-94 project from Milwaukee to the Illinois border.  While portions of the latter clearly involve expansion, it’s clearly wrong to apply that label to modernization of the state’s two most heavily traveled freeway interchanges.  Likewise, reconstruction of existing lanes on I-94 (or on other major projects throughout the state) obviously is not “expansion.”  Yet WISPIRG uses that definition when describing dozens — perhaps hundreds — of projects throughout the state.

I asked WISDOT about WISPIRG’s claim. It explained that the majority of spending on projects cited by WISPIRG involved rehabilitation of existing lanes.  It estimated that less than 15% of the spending called “expansion” by WISPIRG meets that definition.

I presented this background to the conservative group that is relying on WISPIRG’s claim. The group’s director declined to respond directly, writing instead, “It’s unfortunate that you have committed yourself to carrying the torch, whether intentionally or not, for interests that continue to use the heavy hand of government to limit competition and needlessly drive up costs for taxpayers.”