Just Fix It Wisconsin

Wisconsin faces ‘tidal wave’ of costly roadwork delays 3/1/2017

3/1/2017, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – MADISON – Gov. Scott Walker’s transportation plans would result in more congestion, deteriorating road conditions and decades of delayed projects, reviews by his own administration show.

The plans will also force more money to be spent on temporary repairs as the state puts off major projects because of a funding crunch, according to a Department of Transportation memo written in January.

The situation will only get worse.

“The tidal wave is coming, as this critical work can’t be delayed forever,” the January memo says.

The memo was prepared for Secretary David Ross and Deputy Secretary Bob Seitz to get them up to speed as they took over the Department of Transportation. The memo and other briefing documents were released to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the state’s open records law.

DOT spokeswoman Patty Mayers said the memo was prepared before Walker introduced the state budget and contains figures and assumptions that are no longer accurate. She did not provide updated information about the long-term costs of Walker’s budget.

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Mayers said the DOT is evaluating savings it can find based on a directive from Ross, who recently told a state commission he is committed to “giving taxpayers the maximum return for their infrastructure investment.”

But the memo paints a grim picture when it comes to the state’s fund for roads.

Based on earlier budget projections, the memo determined taxpayers would spend $200 million over the next 10 years on temporary repairs because the state is putting off rebuilding highways in southeastern Wisconsin.

After that, taxpayers would have to spend $125 million each year to maintain deteriorating roadways in southeastern Wisconsin — for the next 30 years, according to the memo.

Under Walker’s budget, the effects would not be as severe because he proposed spending $669 million on major projects over the next two years — compared with $563 million the DOT recommended.

Even so, the memo makes clear the state would face added costs for temporary repairs to keep roads and bridges functioning before they could be rebuilt.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said Republicans who control the Legislature are committed to making the DOT more efficient. But streamlining won’t generate enough savings to fix the state’s transportation problems, he said.

“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion we’re going to be able to save our way out of this,” he said. “And the DOT’s own words say that.”

The memo surfaces at a critical time, with Walker strongly opposing raising gas taxes and vehicle registration fees and some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature saying they want to put more money toward roads.

Lawmakers will spend the coming months working on transportation as part of the state budget they plan to approve in June.

In another sign of the funding challenges for transportation, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported Tuesday that the DOT planned to take on $144 million in debt this spring but delay principal payments on it for two years, increasing borrowing costs.

Ross took over the DOT after his predecessor, Mark Gottlieb, warned lawmakers the number of state highways in poor condition was on track to double over the next decade. The memo to Ross details that problem and others facing the DOT.

Under the department’s initial funding plan, no new major projects would be approved until 2023 or 2024, with construction on four projects starting sometime in the six years after that, according to the memo to Ross.

Two more projects would be approved after that — one in 2028 and one in 2038. Environmental studies for any other major projects would be delayed until 2046, according to the memo.

“This results in critical congestion and safety projects being idled for 30 years,” states the memo.

Mayers said the department had not determined how much that situation would improve under Walker’s plan since he was providing more funding than what the DOT had recommended.

Republicans who control the Assembly have said they want to put an additional $300 million into roads over the next two years, but they have not said where they want to get the money.

At a news conference last month on other issues, nine rank-and-file Republican legislators declined to show support for hiking the gas tax. Asked to raise their hands if they wanted to increase the gas tax, they kept their hands by their sides.

But afterward, some of the participants said they could back raising the gas tax under the right circumstances.

Rep. Ed Brooks (R-Reedsburg) said he supported putting $300 million toward roads — possibly by raising the gas tax — while cutting other taxes by the same amount or more.

Brooks and other Republicans are pursuing that approach because Walker has said he might be able to approve a gas tax increase under that scenario. But the governor has consistently expressed skepticism toward increasing the gas tax, saying flatly during his budget speech that it should not be raised.

Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) said by email he was also willing to consider raising the gas tax.

“Most of us feel that we need a sustainable source of funding and that an increase in the gas tax should be considered as part of that solution,” he said by email.

But Republicans who control the Senate have been far more reluctant to agree to put more money toward roads.