Just Fix It Wisconsin

Franzen: Time to deal with Wisconsin’s road crisis 12/30/2016

12/30/2016, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – The state needs to find new sustainable ways to pay for its transportation; and it needs to start with this next budget.

A letter writer on Page 3 today says that Gottlieb evinced class, competence and professionalism. I’d find it hard to disagree with that, and I hope his successor Dave Ross, former mayor of Superior, brings some of the same qualities to the job.

Some state legislators praised Gottlieb in similar fashion.

“I want to thank Secretary Gottlieb for his hard work, honesty, and dedication in trying to solve Wisconsin’s billion-dollar transportation budget deficit,” said state Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) in a news release that went on to blast Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to deal realistically with the state’s transportation challenges.

 “Wisconsin is losing one of our most hardworking and articulate public leaders,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), adding that, “As we’re set to begin the 2017-2018 legislative session and make the tough but prudent decisions regarding the state budget, Secretary Gottlieb’s expertise and candor will be missed.”

Of interest, but perhaps not surprising, is that Walker didn’t share in that praise, perhaps because Gottlieb was saying things that Walker doesn’t want to hear. Gottlieb should be remembered for his service. But more important, he should be remembered for his warning and his attempt to find solutions to one of the state’s biggest budget challenges, especially in the new year.

Just last week, a report was released that said that if state officials don’t put more money toward roads, projects necessary for a healthy state roads network will face serious delays: the full Zoo Interchange won’t be completed until 2020, the north-south portion of I-94 until 2025 and the east-west section of I-94 until 2029.

Three weeks ago, Gottlieb told legislators that the number of state highways in poor condition is on track to double over a decade, debt payments are set to rise for the next several years and state costs are poised to outpace new money for road and highway projects. Forty-two percent of the 12,000 miles of Interstate, state and U.S. highways in Wisconsin will be in poor condition in 11 years if the state doesn’t find new revenue or other solutions, Gottlieb testified.

Reports by TRIP, a national transportation research group, and a 2013 state commission only strengthen Gottlieb’s argument. TRIP reported that, statewide, 42% of major roads already are in mediocre to poor condition; in Milwaukee, it’s 56%; in Madison, 68%. More than 2,000 (14%) of the state’s bridges are in need of repair or modernization.

And while defending Walker’s strategy of delay-and-borrow to close a two-year $1 billion shortfall in the transportation budget, Gottlieb acknowledged it would lead to more bad roads and could delay the completion of all the state’s major planned road projects by as much as decades. Not to mention provide a significant increase in borrowing that could put a serious crimp in another Walker goal: reducing state debt.

Gottlieb knows what he’s talking about. Ten years ago when he was in the Legislature, he co-chaired a panel known as the Road to the Future Committee that examined the long-term challenges for Wisconsin’s highways. He helped lead another task force on the issue in 2013, after he became transportation secretary. The task force recommended raising the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon and creating a new mileage-based fee for drivers. In 2014, he proposed increasing taxes and fees by $750 million over two years for roads.

All those studies, all those recommendations went nowhere. Walker remains adamant in his refusal to raise the gas tax or registration fees unless other taxes are reduced by an equal amount. Some legislators are toying with the idea of tolling on Interstate highways but that would require federal permission and faces serious opposition. Another report issued last week said the state could pick up hundreds of millions of dollars a year from tolling.

The simple facts are these: Too many roads and bridges in the state are nearing the end of their natural lifespans. Some new projects are necessary to improve traffic flow and install modern safety features. Transit, airports, harbors and rail need to be expanded to meet demand and improve transportation options. All this costs money.

The gas tax cannot by itself provide that money, especially as cars become more fuel efficient and hybrids (although a tiny portion of the market today) become more common. And let’s not forget trucks, whose increased size and weight are causing significant wear and tear on the roads.

Above all, let’s not forget that transportation is still the lifeblood of the state’s economy, moving goods and families where they need to be.

The state needs to find new sustainable ways to pay for its transportation; and it needs to start with this next budget. Go back to Gottlieb’s reports. Maybe the engineer did know what he’s talking about.

Ernst-Ulrich Franzen is the Journal Sentinel’s associate editorial page editor. Email: efranzen@jrn.com; Twitter:@efranzen1