Monday, September 28, 2015

Forget DC, Wisconsin has its own issues on funding roads.

Last week, officials at the Wisconsin DOT confirmed that the second phase of the Hwy. 18-151 project connecting Madison to Verona will be delayed into 2021. This (lack of) action is a direct result of the GOP-run Legislature’s decision to cut up to $850 million in highway aids from Gov Walker’s proposed 2015-17 budget earlier this year, and other projects such as the proposed I-39/90 widening between Madison and Beloit has also been pushed back as a result of those cuts (click on this post for a more detailed explanation of those issues).

The highway cuts in South Central Wisconsin prompted U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan to go public last week with a demand that Gov Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature step up before the next budget and put together a plan that adequately funds the state’s highways and local roads both now and for the future.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02) urges Gov. Walker to call a special session to address Wisconsin’s crumbling infrastructure after the Department of Transportation announced the Verona Road construction project will be delayed due to transportation funding cuts in the state’s budget. Phase two of construction, previously scheduled for 2016 and 2017, is now delayed until 2019 and 2020; the road will not be completed until 2021. This comes after the July 2015 release of a Department of Transportation State by State Ranking, listing Wisconsin as the third worst state in the nation for highway infrastructure.

“Once again, Governor Walker’s budget fails to provide critical investment in programs that matter most to the people of Wisconsin. Building safe roads is a basic function of good government. Unfortunately, the state of Wisconsin can’t seem to do even that,” said Rep. Pocan. “Wisconsin is rated third worst in the nation for highway infrastructure with a staggering 71 percent of Wisconsin’s roads in poor or mediocre condition. Now important construction projects are being delayed. Cleary, Wisconsin is doing something wrong.
Pocan’s call for action seemed to spark real conversation on the transportation funding issue over the weekend, as three mid-size Wisconsin newspapers published editorials on the subject, and all found three found fault with the policies put into place by Gov Walker and the GOP Legislature.

We’ll start with the conservative editorial page of the Beloit Daily News, who agreed with Rep. Pocan that it is time for a long-term solution on road funding in Wisconsin, as the short-term patchwork gimmicks put together by WisGOPs in the most recent budgets are making things worse.
It’s time for Wisconsin to get serious about finding a sustainable way to pay for necessary infrastructure projects. At least twice the Department of Transportation has delivered sensible policy solutions, only to have the plans summarily tossed in the trash because enhancing revenue does not fit the ideological narrative for the governor and the Republican-controlled legislature.

But badly deteriorating roads do not serve the narrative of a state that’s “open for business.” Whether it’s companies needing to move product or raw materials, or Chicago tourists aiming to drive to Wisconsin destinations, the quality of highways and back roads matters. Arguably, billions of dollars worth of business for Wisconsin could be adversely impacted if the state refuses to find reasonable ways to pay for transportation needs.

Stubbornness may look fiscally wise in the short run, but the long-term costs will only rise.
Let's go a few miles north of Beloit to find a similar slam from the usually-conservative Janesville Gazette editorial page. The Janesvile paper's editorial takes another step, and criticizes the delay in the I-39/90 expansion as a real cost of Gov Walker putting in a "no new taxes" pose for his now-failed presidential campaign.
It's sickening that a funding gap in the biennial budget approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker has prompted transportation officials to release new maps pushing completion back two years….

Rather than swallow new taxes and fees to shore up transportation funding as proposed by his task force, Walker wanted to convince conservatives nationally of his tight fist in preparation for his now-scrapped presidential campaign. So he proposed borrowing $1.3 billion to keep this and other projects on track. Republican lawmakers, likewise balking at higher taxes, couldn't stomach that much borrowing and cut it by one-third.

Delays would only cost more in the long run as material and labor costs climb. Meanwhile, the revised schedule throws plans of construction companies and employees into chaos.

Every Friday in warm months, bumper-to-bumper traffic heads north. It's like a syringe pumping money into the Wisconsin economy. Those drivers want to reach destinations swiftly but safely. Wisconsin should do everything it can to facilitate that.
The La Crosse Tribune also chimed in on the transportation funding issue, as part of an op-ed saying Wisconsinites should be “ashamed” that the state has the third-worst roads in the nation. The Tribune’s editorial notes that while freeway projects may get the major media attention and dollars, the local roads are in need of a lot of investment as well.
The Tribune published a photo of [La Crosse] County Hwy. YY to accompany the story — a 41-year-old stretch of road that officials say has “alligatored.”…

That road won’t be fixed at least until 2020, under the current schedule.

County [H]ighway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain says county roads need $90 million of work — and the budget last year was $5.68 million.

That math doesn’t work. The alligators are winning.
This is the photo the La Crosse Tribune is referencing to, which is its condition before 4 more 5 more Wisconsin winters hit.

As of now, the Wisconsin GOP Legislature and Gov Walker have no plans to put together any revisiting of transportation funding in the current budget, as they seem more interested in pointless social issues and trying to consolidate power any way they can. The only proposal in this session that would modify the current system of funding was put together by rural legislators to allow counties or municipalities to add a 0.5% sales tax and earmark it for road repair. This bill has had a public hearing, but hasn’t been taken up by the respective Transportation Committees in either house of the Legislature.

And by the way, all of these transportation funding discussions assume that the GOP-led Congress ultimately continues to fund highway projects at their expected levels. That is far from a guarantee with federal budget shutdowns being a strong possibility over the next 2 ½ months, but oddly enough the Walker Administration and the WisGOP Legislature seemed to have no concerns over that uncertainty (while claiming that expanded Medicaid funding in Obamacare was too much of a future risk to take on. Funny that).

But even if Congress acts like responsible adults and passes a highway bill for the next 2 years, Wisconsin still has a major problem paying for its many road repair needs, and the people in charge don't seem to be too interested in heeding the calls of many around the state to actually do something about it.


  1. Did they actually pass the repeal of the Prevailing Wage Law?

    If they did, and they can kick the can down the road (sorry about that) they may actually get the labor at a much lower cost. Profits may be higher for the campaign contributors, sorry, I meant to say road builders. But that isn't that the new order of business in Wisconsin?

    1. If I remember right, they only kicked prevailing wage out for local governments- they'll save the state for later. Another complication would be that Davis-Bacon may require prevailing wage for any project with federal money (I think, anyway).

      Of course, none of that money saved would go to more projects, but instead will be profitused and/or turned into tax cuts. Just like what was done with Act 10

  2. Best blog going. You're on a roll. Speaking of construction, I live in Green Bay, which does not have a single road *not* under construction. We'll be stringing Christmas lights on orange barrels. The traffic for the Packers game last night, on the dismal 41, was backed up to Waukesha. I've seen the apocalypse, and it's never-ending construction zones.

    1. Thankso for the words, Chuck. And we have the same line of barrels all over local Madison streets, even with school and Badger season starting. And that's before these cuts take effect. Ugh