Just Fix It Wisconsin

Green Bay Press-Gazette Editorial: Paying for roads at critical juncture 8/6/2016

8/6/2016, Green Bay Press-Gazette – The frustration of road construction season in Wisconsin may soon be eclipsed by that of road funding, if it hasn’t been surpassed already.

That’s because the state’s system for funding road construction and maintenance is broken. The state has projects that are put on hold and repairs that aren’t being scheduled because of a shrinking pot of money to draw upon and fewer sources of revenue.

Just this past week, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that the city of Green Bay is considering a wheel tax and Brown County is looking at changing its formula for how roads are funded.

How to build and maintain our transportation infrastructure is reaching a critical juncture.

Joint Finance Co-Chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, broke ranks with Republican Gov. Scott Walker by sending out a news release late last month about the state’s “unsustainable transportation budget.”

He cited a report from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that showed the state would need $939 million in the 2017-19 budget to maintain projects approved in the 2015-17 budget. That’s slightly less than the $1.3 billion Walker had requested borrowing for road projects in the current two-year budget. The Legislature approved $850 million in borrowing.

“It’s imperative to look for reform and program savings as we continue discussing revenue options for the benefit of our state,” Nygren wrote.

Those revenue options could include an increase in the gas tax or an increase in vehicle registration.

However, Walker reiterated his opposition to increasing any taxes or fees, unless they’re offset by cuts.

We believe some sort of user fee makes sense, whether that’s a gas tax increase, vehicle registration fee hike or a wheel tax, or a combination.

The reasons are simple: Roads are the lifeline for many Wisconsin communities. They get us to and from work, they get tourists into our communities, they allow goods and commerce to reach our cities and counties. Bad roads lead to costly repairs, delays and even deaths. We need to have good roads and those who use them should help fund their construction and repair.

It’s not like Wisconsinites are getting gouged. State drivers pay about $274 a year in registration fees and gas tax, according to Wisconsin Transportation estimates. That’s less than our neighbors in Michigan ($335), Illinois ($470), Iowa ($488) and Minnesota ($501), according to the state Department of Transportation.

With the gas tax, visitors to our state help pay for roadwork, and with the registration fees, those who have vehicles are taxed. Seems fair.

Whatever the solution, the state needs to get its roads budget in order. Demand that of legislators in this fall’s elections.

Meanwhile, the city of Green Bay and Brown County may be shifting some road funding in the future.

The Green Bay City Council is considering a wheel tax as 131 miles of the city’s 412 need to be repaved or reconstructed. Instead of special assessments, the city would use a wheel tax, under this proposal. Again, it’s a user fee that taxes those who use the amenity, in this case city streets.

Brown County is looking at changing its 50-50 share in roadwork costs. Currently, the county and the municipality in which the county road project is being done split the costs. Under the proposal, the formula would change depending on the project and what it all involved.

We believe it’s right that both the city and the county look at alternatives, but they need to take it slowly. Shifting costs affects everyone in those locales.