Just Fix It Wisconsin

Transportation proposal has little meat on its bones 9/26/2016

9/26/2016, The Country Today – Gov. Scott Walker unveiled some of the details of his 2017-2019 transportation budget proposal a couple weeks ago, and the governor’s plan doesn’t do much to address the need to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure.

The governor held strong to his pledge of not raising taxes or fees, but it comes at the cost of delaying major road expansion projects and other improvements needed across the state.

Walker said his budget provides more money for local governments so they can keep up their roads and bridges; delays work on some major freeway projects until the state has the money to finish them; doesn’t raise taxes or fees; and doesn’t increase the amount of money that would be borrowed from the future in the form of bonding.

“We must be fiscally responsible,” the governor said in a news release. “The best way to think about the transportation budget is the same way homeowners tackle their projects. If you have a home, safety and maintenance are first and foremost. After that, the remodeling projects get reviewed and prioritized and work starts as we can afford them.”

What the governor says makes some sense, until we take a closer look at the state of Wisconsin’s roads and bridges.

In an opinion piece published in the June 22 edition of The Country Today, Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, made the point that Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure is in a state of disrepair, and TDA officials have heard from many people across the state who are frustrated that very little is being done about it.

“In Wisconsin, we pay significantly less in our transportation user fees — meaning our combined vehicle registration fees and gas taxes — than any of our neighboring states,” Thompson said. “After listening to the effects on our business community and our citizens, the old adage of penny wise and pound foolish comes to mind. It’s time to just fix it, Wisconsin.”

Jim Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said lawmakers and the governor can no longer put off reconstructing the state’s roads and bridges.

“For too long we’ve delayed making infrastructure improvements, raided the state’s transportation fund and borrowed like there is no tomorrow,” Holte said. “Like driving full speed down a dead-end road, if we do nothing, Wisconsin’s deteriorating roads and budgetary shortfalls only get worse.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said by delaying major road projects, as the governor is proposing, the proposed budget “does nothing more than kick the can down the road for two years.”

A state transportation task force studied the funding issue for two years and issued a report in 2013 with several recommendations to prop up the transportation fund, including a nickel gas tax hike, an increase in driver’s license fees and a new vehicle registration fee based on miles traveled. The recommendations went nowhere.

Here’s another idea that will likewise probably also be a dead end, because it makes too much sense.

All of us who travel down I-90 into Illinois have been greeted for decades by toll booths that happily accept our Wisconsin money — hundreds of millions of dollars per year. How about we welcome Illinois folks into our state with toll booths at the border? We could give Wisconsin residents an “I-Pass,” so they wouldn’t have to pay the border to travel back into their own state, but the Illinois folks who have been using our money for so many years could help us pay for the roads they use.

The reason a toll road proposal probably wouldn’t fly is because Wisconsin tourism folks would be resistant, saying it would slow down people from coming into our state to enjoy our lakes and tourism venues. But would it? An Illinois family is going to decide not to come to Wisconsin because it has to pay $4 at the door, when that family knows it has been charging Wisconsin residents much more than that for decades? Not likely.

Whether a toll road proposal gains traction or not, something needs to be done to infuse money into the state’s transportation budget. Perhaps a variable gas tax would work, going up or down depending on the price of gas. With gas prices currently at around $2.20 per gallon, another nickel-per-gallon tax probably wouldn’t be too hard for many people to swallow. If the gas price went back to $3.50 or $4, the tax could be dropped.

The same old hard line of “we’re not going to raise taxes or fees while I’m in office” just doesn’t cut it, for transportation, local schools, the university system or other programs that are seeing serious funding reductions during the Walker administration.

No one likes to pay higher taxes or fees, but there comes a time when our roads and schools can’t just be kicked into the ditch any longer.