Friday, June 9, 2017

Sorry Scotty, tolls won't fix today's potholes

As the Wisconsin budget talks grind to a halt, Governor Scott Walker continues to shift and jive his way through, including saying that he could go along with tolling Wisconsin highways as an option to break the legislative logjam and help to fund roads.

Related to that, the Wisconsin State Journal’s Mark Sommerhauser reported yesterday on new information from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that outlined how the state could set up tolls.

Sommerhauser followed those tweets up with a note at the end of today’s “legislative rundown” story which featured this stance from Walker.
Walker has said tolls are “not something I’m pushing.” But he said he would consider tolling proposals if they were collected along state lines, particularly the Illinois line, and if paired with a reduction in gas taxes or vehicle fees.
So let’s go into that Fiscal Bureau memo (which is part of a bigger paper on the ways the Transportation Fund can get revenue) and see how tolling would be set up. Then let’s apply that reality to Walker’s statements.
21. The initial step required of states interested in the pilot program is to apply for provisional approval with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Provisional approval is intended to allow a state to undertake the studies necessary to develop a complete application to the program. Any state receiving a provisional approval has three years from the date of the approval to fully satisfy the program criteria, complete environmental review and permitting, and execute a toll agreement with FHWA. Currently, Missouri is the only state that holds a provisional approval, which will expire no later than December 4, 2017. Two slots are currently available for use by any state with eligible tolling projects under the pilot program. Assuming federal guidance related to these slots is released sometime [in May, 2017] applications for these slots could be due as early as October 1, 2017.

22. As part of the transportation fund solvency study required under 2015 Act 55 [the 2015-17 Wisconsin budget], DOT contracted with HNTB (a consulting firm) to conduct a policy study on the feasibility of interstate tolling. In recent discussions, HNTB noted that while it may enhance the state's application for one of the available tolling slots under the federal Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation pilot program, having enabling legislation in place that authorizes the Wisconsin DOT to toll its interstate road would not be required as part of the application process.

23. However, HNTB staff did indicate that the selection process for any open slots under the pilot program would likely require Wisconsin DOT to identify an interstate corridor on which the tolling pilot program would be implemented in its application. HNTB staff also noted that the tolling pilot program likely requires that all tolling revenues be put back into the project corridor. Thus, it is probable that any revenues generated within the identified corridor could only be used to maintain and enhance the transportation infrastructure within the tolled corridor. While not specifically required as part of the application process, HNTB staff also indicated that the state would have to complete a feasibility study that demonstrates that the revenue generated within the tolling corridor would be sufficient carry out any required maintenance and enhancement of the transportation infrastructure included in the corridor.

24. HNTB noted that if FHWA submits guidance in timely manner that establishes an October 1, 2017 deadline, an FHWA decision on whether or not the state receives provisional approval for one of the pilot program tolling slots would likely be made in June, 2018. If the state's application is accepted, and assuming the needed environmental impact statements on the anticipated work to be carried out in the tolling corridor are completed, legislation is approved authorizing tolling, and tolling infrastructure is in place, HNTB staff indicated that the state could begin tolling all or a portion of the interstate highways in the identified in the corridor by sometime in mid-2021. If the application is delayed by a year, or other factors delay implementation, tolling would not likely be able to begin until mid-2022.
That last part is key, because it means that while tolling may be viable fto pay the bill for huge road projects in Wisconsin (I-94 south of Milwaukee or I-90 south of Madison would seem to obvious targets), no money would come in for at least 4 years. We need to pay for these repairs TODAY, so where do you bridge the 4 years and the $1 billion deficit that has to be dealt with in the meantime?

That’s what Walker clearly has no answer for, other than borrowing the state into oblivion, because he values the opinion of DC lobbyist Grover Norquist over the needs and opinions of the Wisconsinites that pay his salary.

Due to Walker’s and WisGOP’s “borrow but don’t tax” tactics, the LFB says the money required to pay off DOT debt is slated to keep going up under Walker’s budget, increasing by nearly $75 million in the three years between 2015-16 and 2018-2019.

Wisconsin Transportation Fund debt service 2015-19
2015-16 $340.8 million
2016-17 $356.9 million
2017-18 $380.7 million
2018-19 $415.2 million

Also interesting is that the LFB says because of some maneuvers by Walker’s administration in when they issued recent debt, there will be $6 million less to pay in the next fiscal year, but $6 million more in 2018-19 that has to be paid off . So the budget after this one will start with a higher base of debt service (and therefore a higher deficit), and since Walker wants to borrow another $500 million from the DOT fund for 2017-19, that number likely goes even higher for 2019-21.

And if tolling revenues were earmarked for that specific project, how could Walker make it “paired with a reduction in gas taxes or vehicle fees”. That's unless Walker cuts spending on everything else in the state, or borrows even more to make up the difference. So Gov Dropout is either economically illiterate, or hoping that voters aren’t smart enough to keep track of the shell game he is trying to pull.

With costs and needs continuing to rise in Wisconsin, and potholes and weather-related emergency repairs continuing to crop up, trying to kick the can past the 2018 elections isn’t a responsible option. Walker may not care much about this (he’s planning to skip town as soon as he can), but his WisGOP colleagues that have to deal with the fallout from such recklessness aren’t as lucky.

Taking money from the General Fund really isn't an option either, as revenues and job growth stagnates and other items like K-12 education, property tax gimmicks, and prison spending are among the many needs where the State Legislature is trying to scrape up enough money just to make ends meet for 2017-19 (we’ll leave out the $1 billion General Fund deficit looming for the following budget at this time). So where can the money appear that doesn't make the state fall further down the sizable hole Walker has already put us in?

Lastly, I found it interesting that the LFB put out the last of their budget papers yesterday (you can click here to see all of them). That makes me think that the WisGOPs in the Legislature are going to try some kind of last-minute Hail Mary package across a number of departments, as a method to try to sneak some form of this house-of-cards budget through without much time for examination or blowback from the public.

Let’s be ready for what choices the WisGOPs could make (and won’t make), and react appropriately. And hope that this time, JFC and Legislative Dems don't give cover to Republicans in trying to solve the problems that the ALEC crew has created, and have refused to fix responsibly.

No comments:

Post a Comment