Sunday, March 5, 2023

Robbin' Vos thinks tolling is the answer for WisDOT. But we're already much better off than we used to be

Among a list of budget talk that Assembly Speaker Robbin' Vos gave last week, he discussed transportation funding in Wisconsin. And Vos resurrected an idea that was talked about a lot in the 2010s, but not a lot in the 2020s.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has unsuccessfully pushed for tolls in Wisconsin for a decade. He downplayed its chances of ending up in the final 2023-25 state budget but told reporters Wednesday he would try.

"I'm going to look at it again," he said after speaking. "I am going to make an effort to say we need to figure out a long-term answer, but I have had challenges. I don't think Governor Evers is necessarily there. And I'm not sure my Senate Republican colleagues are necessarily there. So I certainly am going to keep trying to talk about it because we have to pay for our roads. It can't just be more money from the federal government when we know that that spigot eventually is going to end."....

Vos said Wednesday if lawmakers had agreed to implement a tolling system a decade ago when the idea was last robustly considered, the transportation system would be "fully funded."

"Imagine it's 2013 when we first started talking about tolling — we have more money than local roads," Vos said. "We have a system that would actually work over the course of the next 100 years as we decide whether or not to transition away from gasoline. We couldn't get that done. Unfortunately, we now sit with a worse problem 10 years later."
I'm not opposed to tolling as a theory, because I think that WisDOT should be given a more consistent form of funding that doesn't rely on the gas tax, especially in a time when gas consumption continues to fall, and tolling can be one of those ways. But Vos is dead wrong when he says we have "a worse problem" today. We are in a much different circumstance than we were when WisDOT released their tolling study in 2016 (here's the summary of it, if you want to check it out).

In 2016, because Scott Walker refused to raise any type of taxes or fees to fix the roads, we were borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars in each budget to pay for projects, and weren't getting additional help from DC to pay for those roads. You may remember this situation, where Walker was making these policy decisions from his typical location - Fantasyland.

That's not the case today. When Evers took office, he and the GOP Legislature raised registration fees on conventional vehicles, and gave the largest increases to hybrid vehicles, to make up for the fact that they don't pay nearly the amount of gas taxes as the majority of vehicles. They also raised title fees by $95, and gave slight increases to some truck fees. These measures were estimated to bring in $217 million for Fiscal Year 2021 (and likely is more today, with the increase in hybrids among Wisconsin drivers).

The state is also seeing a significant boost in assistance from Washington, including an additional $181 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill for this year, and a similar (if not larger) amount coming in for the next 3 years. So that assistance allows for more of a fiscal cushion for the state to fix its roads and provide other transportation services.

Lastly, Governor Evers has started to reduced the costs of the huge debts that were taken on in the Transportation Fund in the Walker years. You can see how the amount of money needed to pay off WisDOT debt grew by over $100 million dollars in Walker's last 6 years in office, which meant that there wasn't much more in state funds that could be used for WisDOT to actually do something. That amount of "usable revenue" has gone up more than $250 million since Evers took office, due to the revenue enhancements, and a lower need to pay off debt.

In addition, Evers is planning a couple of budget moves to make things even better for the Transportation Fund.
Gov. Evers is proposing using nearly $380 million of the state’s historic surplus to pay down debt in the transportation revenue bond program, allowing funds currently devoted to debt service to become available for improving Wisconsin roads and saving the state money on future interest payments.

Additionally, the governor proposes providing two new sources of revenue to fund infrastructure improvements throughout Wisconsin and maintain a healthy transportation fund, including:
An amount calculated from the state sales tax generated by the sale of electric vehicles; and
A transfer of a portion of the state sales tax on the sale of auto parts, tires, and repair services. These transfers will allocate nearly $190 million from the general fund to the transportation fund over the biennium. So things are in a much better place for WisDOT's funding vs where we were when the last tolling study came out in 2016, and we don't need it in place today. Then again, we wouldn't get tolling today even if it got approved in this budget. The 2016 tolling study said it would take several years for the tolling infrastructure to be set up, and that the state would have to throw in hundreds of millions of dollars before they ever got any money back from a toll.

Maybe Robbin' Vos is thinking about what to do with the Transportation Fund in 2030 (especially if Congress decides to stop funding infrastructure), and that's not a bad idea from an academic standpoint. But in 2023 Wisconsin, things have improved so much compared to the Walker years, that tolling isn't something that we would need to fix more of the damn roads.

No comments:

Post a Comment