Just Fix It Wisconsin

Paying for road time? User-based system could fund transportation needs in state, tax watchdog says 11/28/2017

11/18/2017 – Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

Though seemingly everyone recognizes something must be done about transportation funding in Wisconsin, politicians on both sides of the aisle consistently kick the can down the state’s crumbling roads.

That lack of political will was a major theme Friday morning of what likely was longtime Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance President Todd Berry’s last presentation to the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.

While Berry expressed frustration about state government’s inability to settle on a long-term solution to what many are calling a transportation funding crisis, he also offered a prediction about how the problem ultimately will be solved.

Berry told dozens of local business and government leaders attending the chamber’s monthly Eggs & Issues series that he expects the state to eventually implement a user-based system in which motorists are billed based on the number of miles they travel on state highways.

“I think the public is already there,” Berry said in an interview, noting that many Wisconsinites already have electronic passes that allow follow-up payment for traveling on Illinois tollways. “That tells me the public has already accepted that it makes sense to have a user-charge approach to transportation and that metering miles the way we use natural gas or electricity or water is acceptable to them.

“We have the technology, and it’s already being done in other states and other countries.”

In this case, “The public is ahead of the politicians,” said Berry, who is retiring at the end of the year after leading the nonpartisan research organization for 23 years. At the same time, the Madison-based WTA will merge  with the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum while maintaining offices in both cities.

The Eau Claire chamber supports a long-term solution to the state’s transportation funding problem, said Scott Rogers, the group’s governmental affairs and workforce director.

Berry’s idea of a user-based system offers potential, Rogers said, although he acknowledged that some people might be uneasy about technology that allows the government to know where they are at all times, and folks in rural areas might raise fairness questions when they are forced to travel farther by virtue of where they live.

Still, something must be done considering the state is relying on a dwindling and outdated funding source — gasoline taxes — for a transportation system that is essential to today’s economy, chamber President David Minor said.

Berry laid out the familiar reasons behind the perennial transportation funding shortfall — a fixed gas tax no longer indexed to inflation, fewer gallons purchased based on rising fuel economy and millennials who drive less than previous generations — before pointing out that Democratic and Republican governors have neglected the issue.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle created a hole by raiding the state’s transportation fund to the tune of $1.4 billion to help pay for programs through the general fund,  and now Republican Gov. Scott Walker has ignored recommendations for long-term fixes by a panel he created to study the issue and instead resorted to borrowing an additional $400 million to pay for roads and delaying major road construction projects, Berry said.

“The amount that we are spending to service that debt is now becoming a real issue,” he said, explaining that the portion of gas tax revenue used for debt service was 11.5 percent in 2011 and now exceeds 20 percent. Berry asserted that reliance on more borrowing doesn’t qualify as a fiscally conservative solution.

Foxconn

Regarding the state’s recent $3 billion incentive package to lure Foxconn Technology Group to build a massive display-screen factory in southeastern Wisconsin, Berry said the verdict is still out on whether it will prove to be a wise investment for Wisconsin.

On the plus side, if Foxconn proves to be the transformative company Walker has predicted, it will not only bring thousands of jobs but also have the hidden benefit of attracting many people involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields who eventually may start spinoff companies in the state, he said.

On the other hand, the company can be expected to shift its business related to global trends and profitability concerns, leaving the long-term prospects of the planned Wisconsin operations uncertain, Berry said.

“If most employment growth comes from startups, although many of them fail, then maybe we’d be better off putting our eggs into a lot of small baskets rather than one big basket,” he said. “But we won’t know the answer to that for a while.”