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Can our bad roads be good for tourism? 6/30/2015

6/30/2015, In Business Blog – As the debate over the transportation fund continues to hold up passage of the state’s biennial budget, one is left to wonder if we are indeed through the looking glass.

There are a lot of elected officials who have consistently extolled the importance of transportation to Wisconsin’s overall economy, battling over just how much to cut it. And the only response from the governor is that he will sign a transportation budget with reduced bonding.

In 2013, during his speech to the Mid-America Association of State Transportation Officials, Gov. Scott Walker emphasized the importance of the state’s infrastructure and told the audience, “Transportation is what drives our economy here in Wisconsin.”

Unlike his colleagues in other states around the country, however, the governor is unwilling to raise the user fees to pay for that transportation system. Instead he has proposed a massive amount of borrowing, which his Republican colleagues in the legislature have called “irresponsible.”

When the legislature has floated adjusting user fees to pay for our transportation repairs and upgrades the governor has not hesitated to say he would veto those increases.

And so here we sit. If the Republican-controlled legislature is sincere about keeping bonding at a responsible level and there is no chance of adjusting registration fees or the gas tax, then the debate naturally devolves into how much to cut and where. All for a system that “drives our economy here in Wisconsin.”

Seems like a head scratcher, doesn’t it? But perhaps I’m thinking about this too narrowly. I mean, traditionally when we talk about transportation and the economy we think of things like our farmers getting their produce to markets here and abroad. Or tourists motoring up I-39/90 to the Dells. Or timber harvested in the northern part of the state traveling across our state and county roads to the mill.

 

Maybe that is old-fashioned thinking. We have all heard about the concept in capitalism of creative destruction, right? Creative destruction refers to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones. It was coined by Joseph Schumpeter (1942), who considered it “the essential fact about capitalism.”

Maybe these “traditional” industries and the corresponding jobs will be replaced with new ones under a different paradigm.

I know the Wisconsin Association of Tourist Attractions put out a press release last week calling on the governor and legislature to raise the gas tax to fix this situation or tourism will suffer, but maybe their type of “tourism” is passé.

Think about it. Rather than traveling all the way from Chicago to, say, Spooner or Minocqua to go off-roading, our neighbors to the south could get the same experience on our actual roads in Wisconsin. Voila! We just cut out the middleman. Now, you don’t need to haul the ATV — you actually have to drive it there. Remember, it’s all about the journey.

Farmers won’t have to invest in expensive machines to churn milk into butter. They can simply load the milk into the back of the truck and let the bumpy journey take care of the rest.

Won’t accidents back up traffic for hours as our roads, which have already fallen into the bottom third in the country, continue to degrade? Maybe. But think about what we could charge for advertising space on the DOT’s 5-1-1 system.

If you’re a chiropractor? Forget about it. It’s like printing money.

Bus routes are cut? Time to buy stock in Uber.

Automotive shops specializing in tires, rims, and shock absorbers should start thinking in terms of expansions now.

The possibilities in this new economy are endless.

I understand that for many communities across Wisconsin that are waiting to have vital projects move forward and desperately want to see their local roads repaired this is not funny. At some point, however, it’s hard to talk about this without pointing out the ridiculousness of it all.