Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Towns tell Scotty one-time bump in local road aids won't fix the problem.

In a bit of recent news, Gov Walker announced that he would add $14.6 million to the DOT’s budget request, and have that money be allocated to towns to give them an extra boost in fixing their roads. That increase comes on top of added road aids that are slated to go to all levels of local government in the original DOT budget request.
Governor Walker gave remarks at the Wisconsin Towns Association Annual Convention on Monday in Stevens Point and announced an additional $14.6 million in transportation aid would be included in his budget proposal for Wisconsin’s towns. When combined with the $8.9 million increase included in DOT’s budget proposal, Wisconsin towns are projected to see a $23.5 million increase in funding. This represents an 8.5 percent increase over the last budget in overall funding to Wisconsin towns for both the Local Road Improvement Program and General Transportation Aids.
However, some state news services quoted Wisconsin Towns Association Board member Jerry Derr in a way that implied this new increase mentioned by Walker was enough to meet the towns’ needs, and that things were all good. The Towns Association sent out a press release the next day saying that wasn’ty the case, and clarified that while Walker’s proposed increase is nice, it merely evens the towns up with other local governments, and the bump isn’t nearly enough to handle what has to be done.
…the $14.6 million fully addresses an equity concern in WisDOT’s budget request that was being voiced to WTA by town officials representing 95% of Wisconsin’s geography. The budget request included a $65 million increase, of which only $8.9 million was appropriated to towns. This amount was a 2.99% increase in LRIP and GTA combined. We are very pleased that the Governor’s announcement creates an 8.5% increase for towns, which is consistent with the 8.43% increase for counties and 8.61% increase for cities and villages.

Second, although the Towns Association quoted Derr in a recent press release, the faulty reporting does not come close to what Derr said or the WTA position. As was actually stated in the press release by WTA President Lee Engelbrecht, we are looking forward to “begin to work toward a long term, sustainable transportation solution for the whole system.”

To accomplish this solution, WTA continues to feel strongly that we first must squeeze every drop of blood out of the transportation rock through efficiencies that have already been found during the last legislative session and presumably will be found through the WisDOT audit. It is very likely efficiencies will not be enough to address significant unmet needs. At that point, a long term, sustainable, and equitable solution can only be achieved by growing the transportation resource pie so state and county highways, town roads, and city and village streets provide a foundation for economic development in Wisconsin.
What’s also interesting about Walker’s announcement is that he pulled the “see, I can do this without raising taxes” routine as part of it. Well, a big reason this is possible is because the Transportation Fund came in with nearly $207 million left over at the end of 2016, and Walker is likely draining that reserve to pay for this increase. This move doesn’t change the lack of steady revenues that causes the structural deficit which plagues the Transportation Fund (in fact, this increase to towns would make it larger, if it's continuing past 2018), and it still leaves the large debt service bills and reduced highway projects to be figured out by the State Legislature. Oh, and it also likely dumps it on the desk of the next governor in 2019.

I guess I can give a golf clap to Walker for realizing that shared revenues really do make a difference, and that the state has to start picking the slack their prior cuts have caused. But don’t buy the happy talk that all the potholes will be filled and we’ll improve from our 3rd-worst in the nation status for road conditions, because at best, this is short-term assistance that won’t fix the underlying problem of a lack of revenues being generated for what needs to be paid for. And at worst, it’s required even heavier lifting to seriously solve the problem in the coming years.

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