Just Fix It Wisconsin

Victoria Hanson of AAA Wisconsin: State road budget is on the wrong course 9/26/2016

9/26/2016, Wisconsin State Journal – Our nation and most states, including Wisconsin, are facing a serious challenge: Their major road networks, primarily constructed between the 1950s and 1970s, need significant rehabilitation or rebuilding.

These costly projects are due at a time when dramatic increases in vehicle fuel efficiency are allowing road users to pay less in gas tax while putting more wear and tear on the system.

In Wisconsin, vehicle miles traveled has rebounded to pre-recession levels, increasing 3 percent in the last three years. During that same time, the amount of gas tax revenue per mile driven has decreased by about 1 percent, contributing to a shortfall of nearly $1 billion in the state’s biennial transportation budget.

 In the last two-year budget cycle, a similar gap was closed with dramatic increases in borrowing. The budget proposal just released for the upcoming cycle seeks to close it with about $500 million in borrowing and $400 million in project delays.

AAA has long advocated for responsible, sustainable and equitable highway financing. We believe this proposal charts the wrong course for Wisconsin, and we urge lawmakers to adopt a long-term funding plan that meets the current and future needs of the state’s transportation system.

While delaying projects may seem like a sensible option, doing so without a plan for eventually shoring up revenues will set off a chain reaction that pushes critical work further into the future, when it will be dangerously overdue and more expensive to complete. Revenue shortfalls in subsequent budget cycles are likely to be even larger as older vehicles continue to be replaced by ever more fuel efficient models. Additional delays will pile on top of previously postponed work every year unless lawmakers take proactive steps to address the underlying funding challenge.

AAA appreciates the desire of many elected officials to “hold the line” on taxes and fees for motorists. Lawmakers in Wisconsin have done a great job of that in recent years. When you consider the total state excise and sales tax on gasoline combined with vehicle registration fees, motorists here pay an average of nearly $200 less each year than drivers in Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois.

Wisconsin could balance its transportation budget without project delays and still retain most of that advantage.

AAA applauds the efforts of lawmakers to identify efficiencies and ensure that motorists get the most for their tax dollars, potentially reducing the amount of additional revenue needed. But we believe it is irresponsible to categorically rule out any revenue enhancements, especially when doing so increases the chances that more motorists may end up paying an even steeper “hidden tax” as the result of driving on poor roads.

A recent AAA study found that the average cost to repair damage caused by potholes is $300. According to our research, motorists who incurred this expense did so an average of three times in the last five years.

Delaying the necessary repairs and rehabilitation of Wisconsin’s roads is not in the best interests of motorists. Doing so will only make the problems worse and the potential solutions less palatable. The time for action is now.

Hanson is president of AAA Wisconsin in Madison.