Just Fix It Wisconsin

Wisconsin lawmakers argue over federal transportation dollars, signaling a campaign issue 6/19/2018

6/16/18 – The Cap Times

It was just one vote, but Republican Sen. Howard Marklein’s decision to side with Democrats Thursday on how to fund transportation in Wisconsin shows the issue has gained political traction, and may foreshadow campaign debates this fall.

Marklein’s vote against his Republican colleagues came at a heated meeting of the state’s budget-writing committee. Lawmakers convened to determine how to allocate $60 million in unanticipated federal transportation money paid to each state this month.

Lawmakers also spent several hours arguing over which parts of the state’s highway system should take priority, along with the meaning of a new nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo released ahead of the meeting. The memo affirmed that despite one-time boosts in funding from federal grants, the state’s highways roads will continue to deteriorate.

Legislative Republicans ultimately approved a plan, 10-5, to funnel the bulk of the federal funds to the southeastern part of the state to finish Interstate-94. The I-94 project is a crucial piece of infrastructure needed to accommodate the Foxconn plant being built in Racine County.

Under the plan, money will also fix deteriorating bridges. That program, until this biennium, has seen decreasing or stagnant funding since 2007-2009, according to the LFB.

Democrats on the committee wanted more federal money spent on fixing state-owned highways in rural regions and a prohibition on the state spending federal money on roads previously controlled by municipalities.

They lambasted Republicans for their record on road funding, accusing Gov. Scott Walker of not making it a priority.

“What a shame the whole state is not benefitting from it. What a shame that communities all over this state who say their state highways are crumbling, are not benefitting from this money,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “We want to put money in communities that need them … My gosh, what is it going to take to have you all invest in our state roads outside of the Foxconn project? What is it going to take? You have done very irresponsible budgeting that has created a transportation crisis throughout the state.”

“It’s more of a triage mentality,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “We’re just going to go from one emergency to another emergency. We’re not going to talk about the long-term funding.”

Some Republicans on the committee disagreed, saying that no projects have been delayed because of money directed to Foxconn. They maintained the state Department of Transportation needs to steward money more efficiently, not raise more.

“Critics are desperately trying to distort Scott Walker’s record on transportation, but the fact is that he invested more than $24 billion into roads and bridges across the state while they raided more than a billion from the transportation fund when they controlled state government,” said Austin Altenburg, a spokesman for Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

Other Republicans, including Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, acknowledged Thursday that there needs to be a “serious conversation about revenues in our state,” though noted that was not the Legislature’s charge this week.

Thursday’s spat over $60 million in federal dollars, a pittance considering DOT has a multi-billion dollar transportation program, shows the importance of transportation policy as a political issue, said former state Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb.

The $60 million, along with other one-time sources of federal money, still does not fill a funding gap or fix the transportation fund’s sustainability problem, he said.

“That just shows you how much unmet need there is out there,” said, Gottlieb, a Republican who led DOT during the bulk of Walker’s time in office before resigning in 2016. He has become a vocal critic of Walker’s approach, which he said became politicized.

“The real point is, for all this money that they got, they are still fighting these fights because it is nowhere near enough to meet the need statewide, so what is happening is people are picking winners and losers. Everyone wants to be a winner but they can’t because there is not enough money,” he said.

Results of Wisconsin’s two special legislative elections this week in the 1st Senate District, where Democrat Caleb Frostman beat Republican incumbent Andre Jaque, and the 42nd Assembly District, where Republican Jon Plumer beat Democrat Ann Groves Lloyd, also show how prominently transportation will play in campaigns statewide, said Bill McCoshen, a Republican political analyst who has lobbied for the state’s road builders for years.

“The candidates that were the most open to a long-term funding solution to transportation were winners,” said McCoshen. “I think Howard Marklein’s vote was pretty smart yesterday. He can’t have the perception in his district that he is giving more money to southeast Wisconsin when his district has some of the worst roads in the state.”

Marklein, of Spring Green, faces a tough reelection bid against Democrat Kriss Marion, a farmer and LaFayette County Supervisor. Both have said they are concerned about rural interests. Earlier this year, Marklein noted in an op-ed that “one of the most frequent requests I receive from constituents is to ‘do something’ about the roads.” He went on to note that though infrastructure is important to big cities, “it is just as important for other parts of the state.”

The state’s Republican Party disagree with McCoshen’s assessment. Though it did not comment on the state 1st District Senate race, spokesman Alec Zimmerman said results in the 43rd Assembly District indicate a rejection of Democratic policies.

“Jon Plumer ran a campaign focused on delivering real results for hard-working families, the same record that Governor Walker and Republicans across the state have run and won on time and time again,” said Zimmerman.

Legislative Democrats also criticized Republicans for DOT taking authority over local roads in order to funnel state money towards them. In a memo released before Thursday’s meeting, Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang wrote that spending more money on roads near Foxconn will limit the state’s ability to make improvements to highways in other parts of the state.

“The use of funding … for previously unscheduled Foxconn-related local and state highway work will also impact the overall backlog of State Highway Rehabilitation roadwork, which can be measured by the estimated decline in the condition of the state highways,” Lang wrote.

Following Thursday’s meeting, Walker cheered the increase in funding for bridge repair, saying in a statement that the move is the “largest increase in local road and bridge aid in 20 years.” The money will fund 70 more bridges in addition to 113 that are already being funded, he said.

“We are making sure our infrastructure is safely and efficiently connecting people and commerce in every corner of our state,” Walker said.

But Gottlieb said those comments don’t illustrate the full picture. For him, the tradeoff is the point.

“Every time he is telling part of a story and it’s the part of the story that is favorable to them: ‘This is one area where we have increased spending.’ That is true, but what about everything else?” he said. “I’m not saying don’t spend money on local bridges, but you’re doing it at the expense of other programs.”

According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, of Wisconsin’s 14,253 bridges, 1,245 are structurally deficient. Last year the state reported to the Federal Highway Administration that there are repairs needed on 2,809 bridges, which the state estimates will cost $2.6 billion, according to the group.

Under Walker’s new DOT Secretary Dave Ross, the state has adopted a “replace-in-kind” policy where bridges are fixed only based on the existing structure, “with necessary adjustments made for current standards, safety, and other factors,” according to Walker’s office.

“More bridges are being done, but the county and town is having to come up with more money on their end,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Authority of Wisconsin, a group allied with road builders. “In some instances it makes sense to try to be as judicious as possible, in other instances we’re building yesterday’s infrastructure for tomorrow.”