Just Fix It Wisconsin

A conservative case for a gas tax hike 7/20/2017

7/20/2017, ISTHMUS – One of the principal responsibilities of modern government is to raise the money necessary to establish and maintain an outstanding highway system. This often requires courage. Although almost everyone supports good roads, almost no one is eager to pay for them.

Wisconsin is presently mired in a budget stalemate over transportation funding. There are legitimate disputes about how to calculate the gap in the budget, but there is no dispute that the transportation fund needs hundreds of millions of additional dollars. Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Republicans favor borrowing the money; Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wants to raise revenue.

A person who is happily retired from public office has a lot more freedom to suggest solutions than officials who are still in the arena.

Here are my unpleasant but honest suggestions:

Raise the gasoline tax at least 5 cents per gallon and index for future annual adjustments.

When Tony Earl, a Democrat, served as governor (1983-87), he proposed indexing the state’s gasoline tax. Gov. Earl’s plan took effect in 1985 and worked successfully for 21 years. Providing stable transportation funding was one of his most significant accomplishments.

In 2006, however, the Republican-controlled Legislature repealed the annual adjustment of the tax and Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, signed the repeal into law. The vote was 20-13 in the Senate, 70-23 in the Assembly, meaning that both parties played some role in the repeal. Most of the “no” votes came from Democrats.

This bipartisan short-sightedness admittedly saved taxpayers — and out-of-state visitors — about $1.4 billion since 2007. But it also deprived the transportation fund of the same amount and has led to substantial borrowing, $850 million in the last transportation budget.

Wisconsin’s gasoline tax in 2000 was 26.4 cents per gallon. Annual adjustments raised the tax to 27.3 (2001), 28.1 (2002), 28.5 (2003), 29.1 (2004), 29.9 (2005) and 30.9 (2006). In retrospect, these were very modest adjustments.

According to an analyst in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, if indexing had not been repealed, the current gasoline tax would be 37.9 cents per gallon, plus 2 cents to clean up underground tanks. Even 39.9 cents would be below the current taxes in Michigan, Indiana and the most populated parts of Illinois.

Opponents of a responsible gas tax increase must address not only the unfortunate repeal of indexing but also the increased fuel efficiency of many vehicles. The Fiscal Bureau explains that if the Legislature tried to make up the revenue lost since 2006 from “fuel efficiency” alone, it would have to raise the gas tax by 4 cents. These facts, as Alexander Hamilton once put it, are “too stubborn to be resisted.”

Raise the automobile license fee from $75 to $100.

Wisconsin’s annual license plate fee for automobiles has not been raised since 2008. A license fee increase of $25 for automobiles and light trucks would raise an estimated $115 million a year to help close the budget gap. This fee would still be less than the fee in several neighboring states.

Find a fair way to assess electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids for their useof Wisconsin roads.

Many people see plug-in hybrid cars and pure EVs as the wave of the future. Federal tax credits have been authorized to encourage EV purchases. The inevitable consequence is a decline in gas tax revenues. These revenues must be replaced because EVs and hybrids use the same highways as everyone else.

To illustrate the inequity, a 2012 study by the Michigan-Ohio University Transportation Center reported that in Michigan, “a GM Volt pays 0.104 cents per mile of travel, while a Hummer pays 1.85 cents per mile of travel.”

More than 100 Wisconsin communities now have charging stations for EVs. According to ChargeHub, Madison has 91 charging station ports. Some ports provide electricity for free as a gimmick to attract future customers. Utilities, supermarkets, car dealerships and others are involved in an EV movement that appears unstoppable. The state should consider joining that movement by locating charging stations at rest areas and parks.

Determining the most appropriate method for assessing EVs and hybrids for their use of public highways will be controversial and require creative thinking. The state of Oregon is experimenting with a tax on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), in lieu of a tax on gasoline consumed. It is taking this step after issuing a report, “Innovation or Insolvency.”

A VMT regimen may or may not work. But if it does it will take years to set up. In the meantime, Wisconsin should create a blue ribbon task force to devise an interim solution.

Place a moratorium on the construction of roundabouts.

Wisconsin has more roundabouts than any state in the Midwest. Although statistics can be elusive, Wisconsin had 383 roundabouts by the end of 2016, according to Paul Vraney of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Indiana (at least 300) and Missouri (about 250) are competitive, but Ohio (91) and Illinois (63) are not (numbers provided by administrators at the respective state transportation agencies). At the end of 2016 Wisconsin had 220 roundabouts on its state trunk highways. Michigan, by contrast, had 44, Illinois 14, and Iowa, only seven. Transportation officials in some states don’t keep track of local roundabouts.

Roundabouts are the wave of the present and are passionately promoted and defended by many traffic experts. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, they reduce the number of severe injury crashes and deaths, provide “good economic value,” reduce delay and improve traffic flow, and are “a greener alternative with less vehicle idling, lower fuel emissions and less wasted fuel.” They have even been promoted as potentially lowering the premiums for automobile insurance — a claim quickly disavowed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

One does not have to dispute the case for roundabouts to raise questions about the priority they have been given in Wisconsin. In times of limited resources the state’s DOT forthrightly explains that “the estimated construction cost of a single-lane roundabout typically ranges from $1.2 to $1.8 million. Multi-lane roundabouts typically range from $1.8 to $2.4 million.”

Wisconsin appears to have constructed 33 roundabouts in calendar year 2016, 24 on state trunk highways. Many more are being planned. Wisconsin’s rapture with roundabouts is underscored by the fact that the DOT and UW-Madison hosted the 5th International Conference on Roundabouts in Green Bay last May.

Various studies have rated Wisconsin as having some of the worst roads in the nation — “third worst,” according to a 2015 study by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute; 71 percent of our roads in poor/mediocre condition, according to a 2015 report in Business Insider; “fourth worst” in the country in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Being a national leader in roundabouts does not enhance the state’s ranking in the surface quality of its highways. Either the critical “studies” of Wisconsin highways should be challenged as misleading or the Legislature should ask tougher questions about our emphasis on roundabouts when the state can’t fund needed road improvements elsewhere.

Consider creative ways to generate revenue at the state’s first-rate rest areas.

Wisconsin has about 30 beautiful rest areas along major highways. These rest stops compare favorably with facilities in other states. The cost of building and maintaining these areas, however, has to be significant — and they appear to generate very little revenue. Siting EV charging stations on state property is only one idea. Finding creative ways for users to spend money when they stop at rest areas would be desirable.

Rest areas near Illinois and Michigan should post gas prices for Wisconsin and the other states to encourage motorists to fill up here. Loyalty to Wisconsin makes perfect sense when it is aligned with lower gas prices.

Budget experts suggest that even if these five proposals were accepted there would still be a transportation budget deficit. But it would be smaller. Nothing in this screed is intended to exclude traditional cost-cutting and better budgeting and planning. But clichés about “waste, fraud and abuse” aren’t going to solve the problem. Neither is frivolous talk about toll roads. They would be too far in the future to affect the current budget. Moreover, they would be a logistical, economic and political nightmare. No one who is opposed to a gas tax increase will want to pay 5 cents per mile on our interstates….or beltlines… when they can access so many other highways and frontage roads to reach their destination.

These unpopular suggestions are intended to provoke meaningful dialogue. Readers should accompany all criticisms and invective against the author with realistic alternatives.

David Prosser represented the Appleton area in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1979 through 1996, including two years as Speaker. He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1998 and retired last year.