Just Fix It Wisconsin

To gauge the public’s appetite for transportation fix, ask about costs AND benefits 2/20/2019

2/19/19 – InBusiness Magazine

Wisconsinites are increasingly willing to “Just Fix It” and support a reasonable investment in transportation. This idea is counter to the narrative put forward by some who say while people may not like the condition of the roads on which they drive every day, they don’t want to pay more to fix them.

Proponents of this view will point to polling done by the Marquette Law School last October. In the Oct. 10 poll results, 64 percent rated the roads and highways where they live as fair or poor, yet 61 percent said it was more important to keep the gas tax and vehicle registration fees where they are now instead of raising these user fees to increase spending on roads and highways. Only 32 percent supported raising the gas tax and registration fee.

Case made, right?

Except, let’s use this example: You’re hungry and the only place open in your town is the diner. The diner is convenient, but the food isn’t great, the options are limited, and if you were honest, you would have to admit the quality of the food and service has gone down in the last several years. As you enter the diner, someone stops you and asks if you would like to pay more. Isn’t the reasonable response, “No, I think I’m good”?

To make an informed decision, you would have to know how much more you were being asked to pay and what you would get in return — better service and food in the diner example and better road conditions or connections in the case of Wisconsin transportation. This is not clear in either the Marquette poll question or the hypothetical diner example.

In 2017, the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin (TDA) tried to ascertain people’s willingness to pay for transportation by engaging respected pollster Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies. He asked the question this way: “And, would you support or oppose a proposal that would cost you an extra $4 a month if it meant creating an immediate solution to fix our roads?” With just a little bit more information, meaning the specific amount of $4 per month, the rate of support was well over 70 percent.

Quantifying the amount of any proposed increased user fee is crucial, as people don’t know how much they pay in gas taxes and they are likely to overestimate the impact of any increase on personal finances. Importantly, the $4 per month is roughly equivalent to a 10-cent gas tax increase, depending on miles driven per year and vehicle fuel efficiency.

So, it comes down to presenting a clear value proposition.

But even in the absence of a plan, the numbers are moving in the right direction. In the latest Marquette poll, the percentage of people who support an increase in user fees — the gas tax and registration fee — has jumped 10 percentage points to 42 percent since mid-October.

As the Evers Administration rolls out a plan and the budget process unfolds in the coming months, it will be important to draw a direct line between any increases in funding — from improvements in system performance and road conditions to the benefits to the user — and ultimately to any increased fees.

Why is this so important? Because every report from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in recent years has projected that road conditions will be significantly worse in 10 years without increased investment in our infrastructure. Wisconsinites need to understand we are paying a price for poor road conditions and system performance — more wear and tear on our vehicles and time lost stuck in traffic. Without a plan to improve our transportation network, we will continue to pay more in the future with little to show for it.

Doing nothing about our deteriorating transportation conditions is a choice — a very costly choice.

It’s time for a new menu.