Just Fix It Wisconsin

La Crosse Tribune: Roads require long-term solution 9/19/2016

9/19/2016, La Crosse Tribune – Wisconsin’s roads need more than engineering and concrete.

They need leadership and courage.

They don’t need delays. They don’t need answers that only pretend to suit the political whims of today instead of the needs of today and tomorrow.

We need leadership – the type that requires difficult, potentially unpopular decisions if we’re truly going to serve the future of our state’s roads and bridges.

If Wisconsin is open for business and tourism, we need to make sure our roads are, too.

Gov. Scott Walker announced plans last week to delay road projects in Wisconsin. Sadly, that’s not what our road system needs.

The state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the state needs $939 million to pay for projects that have already been approved.

The governor wants to give more money to local governments for road work, but it barely will patch the pothole. Here’s an example of his solution and the problem: Under Walker’s plan, La Crosse County would receive $127,000 during the next two years. The problem is, La Crosse County has an $89 million to-do list of work that includes “failing pavements, bridges in need of replacement, resurfacing and stormwater issues,” County Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain said.

A bandage and a lollipop won’t help.

Let’s look at an opportunity we’ve already lost – and a possible solution going forward.

For 20 years beginning in 1986, Wisconsin raised revenue by automatically indexing its fuel tax each year by a small amount per gallon.

Yes, that raised the tax. It also raised millions of dollars to improve our roads.

In 2005, the Legislature and then-Gov. Jim Doyle agreed to repeal that automatic annual increase. It was an easy, popular quick fix – and even some conservative Republicans said it was short-sighted.

How much did that cost our transportation fund in revenue?

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported in March 2015 that the transportation fund had lost more than $1 billion because of the change, which took effect after April 2006.

So, you do the math: The state needs $939 million to complete approved projects, and we’ve lost out on $1 billion because we lacked the leadership and courage to continue the adjustment on a tax that is paid by all who use the roads, including tourists and many other non-Wisconsin residents.

Our state has a heritage of appointing bipartisan, blue-ribbon committees to improve operations, such as the Kettl Commission, charged more than 15 years ago with studying ways of restructuring government in our state.

Since Walker has been governor, we haven’t seen that type of collaborative problem-solving, only divide and conquer.

Now would be an excellent time to pull together businesses and transportation executives to help policy-makers make sound decisions on funding and fixing Wisconsin roads.

We’re encouraged that members of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses are unhappy with the governor’s approach to fixing our road problem.

But will they have the leadership and the courage to do something about it? Will they be able to override a veto from the governor? Will they be able to work together on a solution?

We’re not optimistic.

The Transportation Development Authority will convene constituents throughout the state Sept. 29 to call attention to the problem. It’s an excellent opportunity to speak out.

TDA Executive Director Craig Thompson said the governor’s proposal “does not provide a coherent plan or vision for the state. It would provide, for the next two years, needed investment at the local level, but at the expense of important economic corridors. Crucial safety improvements called for by WisDOT on some of the busiest stretches of interstate in Wisconsin would not proceed. The question is: If we are not going to rebuild 60-year-old segments of the interstate system now, when are we?”

That’s exactly the question: If not now, when?

During a TDA meeting in Onalaska this summer, businesses like Kwik Trip talked about the increased cost of maintenance and replacement caused by deteriorating roads.

Jeff Reichling, Kwik Trip’s superintendent of petroleum transportation, said during that meeting: “This will only continue to grow as a problem.”

The safety of our residents and the vibrancy of commerce and tourism are at stake.

It’s time to find a long-term solution – even if it hurts.