Friday, September 23, 2016

No good options left to pay (or not pay) for the Wisconsin roads

Wisconsin's transportation funding jumped back into the spotlight on Thursday, with Republicans on all levels squabbling with one another on how to solve the $1 billion deficit that exists in the next budget. It started with Governor Walker sending a letter to GOP Assembly leadership, and if you can get by Walker’s partisan poses and non-reality bullcrap about the state’s economy and budget, you’ll notice this ending paragraph, where he basically says "Come up with something that I don't have to take ownership of"
On transportation, we have more work to do. I have responded to legislative concerns on bonding, supported audits of the agency to protect the taxpayer, and put forth a plan with our priorities for a full discussion. I am willing to consider any specific alternatives from Assembly leadership that live within taxpayer means and I look forward to hearing such alternatives in the coming weeks ahead.
Later in the day, Assembly GOP leadership responded by saying Walker wasn’t following the DOT’s own recommendations, and wasn’t dealing with fiscal reality.
In 2013, your special commission, the Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy, estimated the state needs an annual increase in revenue of $1.35 billion in each year until 2013 just to maintain current conditions. Without additional highway funding, the percentage of the system in poor or worse condition will go from 20 percent in 2014 to 42 percent in 2023. The commission also pointed out “the state’s decades—old transportation funding model is not keeping pace with current or future needs.”

Further, consider the relationship between our fuel tax, the main funding source for our highways, and the construction cost index. Since 2008, the cumulative change for the fuel tax was 2.8 percent; for the construction cost index, it was 46.5 percent. Clearly, the fuel tax is not keeping up.

Assembly leaders believe it is more conservative to pay for projects today than it is to borrow the money and let future generations deal with the debt. Our state has relied too heavily on bonding. Debt payments have doubled in the last ten years and 20-cents on every transportation dollar now goes back to pay transportation debt. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that percentage will increase a penny ( (sic!) ) each year under the DOT Agency Budget Request and may increase to a quarter of the transportation budget in a few years. While, as you pointed out, debt service levels remain in line with recommendations from the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for Wisconsin’s taxpayers, especially with the fact that the budget also delays important projects that will cost more in the future.
Not a bad plan, and it at least admits that revenue needs to be part of the equation, but it’s still vague on just how that revenue will be found (tolling? More gas tax? Hybrid fees?). And the other side of the plans for Robbin’ Vos and others seems to include trying to remove prevailing wage requirements for highway construction workers (notice that GOPs ALWAYS try to cut wages wherever they can?), and with the state already lacking for skilled workers because of low wages, I can’t see how increasing the wage gap more would help GAIN jobs.

And then Senate GOP Leader Scott Fitzgerald chimed in on the transportation issue yesterday (in the same press conference where he lied about not being a part of the John Doe scheme) and Fitz seemed to back away from the tax and fee increases that the Assembly seemed to be considered.
Fitzgerald, speaking Thursday to reporters in the halls of the Capitol, acknowledged that the issue has divided his caucus. But he ruled out passing a budget that raises taxes for roads because Walker would veto it.

"How is that productive?" Fitzgerald said. "You're going to have to work with the governor."

The budget proposal put forward last week by the Department of Transportation calls for borrowing $500 million and cutting $447 million by delaying a number of major projects, including work on the final phase of Milwaukee's Zoo Interchange rebuild and Madison's Beltline.
You gotta wonder if vulnerable GOP Senators are going to go along with that “no-tax" doctrine from Fitz over the next 6 ½ weeks, since we’re already seeing wheel taxes getting passed in numerous Wisconsin communities of all sizes because the state hasn’t kept up their share of the costs of local road repair. If I was a Dem running against those senators, I’d definitely ask my opponent if he/she thought that was a good idea.

Speaking of Wisconsin Democrats, isn’t it odd that they’re not being asked for input in this issues, especially since they may well have control in the Senate and will likely have a larger contingent in the Assembly in a few months? Dem Senator Kathleen Vinehout recently published her thoughts what to do on the DOT budget, and advocated for smarter ways to conserve spending, while also knocking Walker’s shortsighted poses on the revenue side.
I strongly support the move to fund our local roads along with smarter transportation spending. Let’s look for efficiencies in-house. An easy first step is passing my bill to repeal the 2011 law forbidding local governments from collaborating on transportation projects.

No one can deny the money funneling into our Transportation Fund, largely gas tax and motor vehicle registration fees, has not kept up with the cost of maintaining our roads and bridges.

Governor Walker is ideologically opposed to raising taxes or fees, yet knows our transportation budget lacks the revenue needed. The prudent executive should not let ideology cloud important financial decisions. Some road delays may be in order, but cutting back on construction already in progress comes with a price tag.

User fees acknowledge the cost to maintain and improve services. For example, the state owns, or is a substantial owner of, over 700 miles of freight rail. In a previous budget, Secretary Gottlieb proposed charging a $10-a-rail-car fee for use of taxpayer-funded rail lines. The Governor failed to take up this modest charge. Taxpayers – you and me – continue to subsidize railroads use of our state-owned lines.
You can see what a mess the state’s transportation budget is in, and how many different ideas are up in the air. And we’re not even talking about the extra costs that the state is going to have to take on to repair the damage from washed-out main roads due to the numerous floods over the last 2 months.

Just like a lot of other things in Fitzwlkerstan, the refusal to responsibly fund the state’s needs leads to bigger problems in later years. Maybe it’s time we stop allowing the current crew to keep messing it up, and call in a new set of leaders that might be real with what has to be done, whaddya say?


  1. Thanks for the shout out to Sen. Vinehout. She is about solutions, isn't she? It's not as attention grabbing as a twitter feed, but it is more important in the long run to our state's wellbeing.

    1. No problem. I've referenced Sen. Vinehout in the past, because how can I not like a legislator who writes wonky blog columns? :P

      I also think it's telling that there are Dems bringing up solutions, but the GOPs and the state's media pretend that they aren't out there.