During the Joint Finance Committee’s last week of work on the state budget, one of the least contentious budget areas was transportation funding.
Unlike prior budgets when the transportation fund was raided to cover costs in the rest of budget or different types of transportation options were debated, the transportation budget discussion this year was largely about our transportation infrastructure, preserving the transportation fund and providing transit aid.
Like most budget items, decisions about transportation funding were really decisions about balancing competing priorities.
Many of us want a safe and efficient highway system and we want to provide aid for local roads, but we do not want to spend so much money on one part of the budget that other parts suffer.
During our discussion of the transportation budget, the committee approved a 4 percent increase in transit aid, resulting in a $5.3 million increase.
Transit aid helps pay for bus systems and shared-ride taxi systems.
In the last budget, transit aid was cut by 10 percent.
The committee also voted to fund transit aid with general purpose revenue rather than through the transportation fund.
This action was later reversed by the committee on the final day of deliberation.
The committee voted to keep transit aid in the transportation fund, but transferred approximately $107 million in general purpose revenue to the transportation fund to cover the transit aid.
A major area of concern has been the status of the transportation fund.
Shortly after the budget was introduced we learned that there was a projected deficit in the fund, largely because the state was not taking in as much gas tax revenue as expected.
The transportation fund is composed of revenue from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. The committee voted to delay some highway projects to deal with the projected $60 million deficit in the transportation fund.
The action of the Joint Finance Committee would leave the transportation fund with a positive balance of $5 million at the end of the biennium without raising taxes or fees.
The committee also voted to add 180 more engineers to the Department of Transportation staff.
While this seems like a large increase, these engineers will replace outside consultants that the state has hired in the past.
It should save the state money and allow work to be completed faster and more efficiently.
County transportation aid was increased by about $2 million in 2015 and then by 2.4 percent in years to come.
This will help counties pay for local road projects and maintain highways.
This increases county aid from roughly $94 million to $96 million.
The transportation budget also created a mechanism for local governments to obtain assistance for fixing roads following damage from storms and clean-up efforts.
The state has a program that provides aid to local governments to replace or repair roads or roadway structures that are severely damaged by floods.
Governor Walker proposed increasing the funding for this program from $600,000 annually to $1 million annually per disaster and proposed expanding the type of natural disaster the assistance would cover.
Rather than only covering damage caused by floods, the governor proposed including a severe storm, flood, fire, tornado, mudslide or any other natural event.
The committee modified the governor’s proposal by including a provision that transfers funds from the general fund to the transportation fund in the second year of each biennium to cover the costs of disasters that exceed $1 million.
Additionally, the committee modified the governor’s proposal to require that disaster assistance requests exceeding $1 million be approved by both the governor and the Joint Finance Committee.
The Joint Finance Committee has completed its work on the state budget.