Just Fix It Wisconsin

State road quality falls as debt rises 9/17/2018

9/12/18 – Ozaukee Press

Contentious issues abound in the race for Wisconsin governor, most of them exaggerated for maximum weaponized effect by each candidate, but one that may prove to be influential in the election is so clear and obvious it needs no exaggeration. In fact, the issue was presented by Gov. Scott Walker, gift wrapped and ready to be used with no assembly required, to his opponent, Tony Evers. The issue is Walker’s exasperating, frustrating, stubborn and ultimately indefensible refusal during his two terms in office to support a responsible plan to pay for repairing, maintaining and rebuilding Wisconsin’s roads.

It says something about the legitimacy of the issue that, even in this time of exceptionally bitter political division, consternation over Walker’s approach to the state’s transportation needs is bipartisan: Many Republican office holders disapprove of it as earnestly as Democrats in the Legislature.

For lack of adequate funding, the state has delayed needed road projects and has failed so abysmally in road maintenance that the U.S. Department of Transportation has reported that 71% of Wisconsin’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition, giving the state the second worst rating in the nation.

Walker’s way of paying for transportation needs is borrowing, with the result that the state’s highway debt now totals about $4 billion and debt service accounts for 25% of the transportation budget. Borrowing at this level is not only unsustainable, it is inadequate. It can’t cover the spending needed to improve the state’s highway system, much less meet public transit needs.

The starting point for sustainable highway funding is to increase the gas tax, which has been 30.9 cents per gallon since 2006 and has been generating diminishing revenues as vehicles have become more fuel efficient.

But the governor refuses to consider it, apparently out of an ideological bent holding that all taxes are an onerous burden on citizens. In applying this belief to road funding, he may be underestimating the intelligence of the public. Most people understand that the only way to pay for public roads is with taxes, whether it’s the gas tax, license fees or highway tolls that act like sales and use taxes, income taxes or debt, which has to be repaid with—what else?—state taxes.

Walker recently proposed stretching the state’s strained highway budget by eliminating additional lanes in some scheduled rebuilding projects. This won restrained praise from 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, an organization that has, to its credit, fought highway expansion in instances where it would have damaging environmental consequences. But the governor’s proposed cuts have nothing to do with the environment, and very much to do with diverting money from needed projects to speed work on highway improvements that benefit the Foxconn plant lured to the state with a $4 billion incentive package.

A welcome challenge to Walker’s project-shrinking gambit came last week from a battle-scarred veteran of Wisconsin’s road funding wars. Mark Gottlieb of Port Washington, a one-time mayor of the city who went on to serve four terms as a Republican member of the state Assembly and six years as transportation secretary in the Walker administration, criticized the governor’s plan in a written statement and comments published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Gottlieb, a civil engineer by profession, pointed out that some of the projects Walker wants to cut back are for highways that “are already unacceptably congested today, causing delay, economic loss and higher crash rates.” He said Walker had been “increasingly inaccurate” in his pronouncements on highway funding and that a strange claim by the governor that unnamed outside interests are trying to force wider highways on Wisconsin “is not factually based.”

When he headed the Department of Transportation, Gottlieb was tasked by the governor to come up with a plan for funding the state’s transportation demands. He responded with a comprehensive proposal that was necessarily complex but based on practical solutions, including increasing the gas tax and registration fees. It was widely praised, but not by Walker. It was no surprise that nothing came of it.

Gottlieb vented his frustration to the Legislature a few weeks before he resigned as DOT chief. He warned that without funding changes, the number of state roads in poor condition would double by 2027.

Nothing has changed that outlook, which is why transportation funding failures are an issue in the governor’s race.