State’s highway system waits for long-term solutions
By Matt Pommer
The Walker administration is scheduled next week to provide details of its transportation funding plans for the 2017-19 biennial budget.
Gov. Scott Walker has said it won’t include any increase in gasoline taxes or legislative-voted vehicle fees. The emphasis will be moved from construction and expansion of major highways to more help for local governments.
It remains to be seen whether the shift will be enough to meet local government needs. A growing trend by local and county governments is adoption of their own wheel taxes.
“Those are things they have to justify to local voters,” the governor said when asked about the growing trend.
Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly asked Walker, without success, to take a leadership role in providing a long-term answer to financing the state’s highway and transportation program.
During Walker’s six years as governor the emphasis has been on borrowing to finance transportation growing needs. Fiscal experts say about one of every five state transportation dollars is used to pay the interest on the bonds and retire them.
Fuel-efficient vehicles may be good for motorists but they mean less tax revenues. State gas tax revenues declined 2.1 percent in the 2011-2014 period, experts report.
The emphasis in Wisconsin has been on big interurban projects. There have been less money for local aids, and rural areas are feeling the squeeze. Local road projects are delayed and maintenance has often become a patchwork process.
That’s bad government, local leaders say. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities recently reported that costs soar when a road has to be totally reconstructed – four times as much for total reconstruction, the League said.
Republican leadership in the Assembly is frustrated with Walker’s position.
The transportation funding issue has gone too long without a solution, according to Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair John Nygren, R-Marinette.
“We have kicked the can down the road long enough,” he said.
State Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, invited Walker to come ride on roads in his part of the state and see firsthand their condition. The governor did not respond to the invitation, he said.
“For me and farmers like me all over Wisconsin, every step of our trade requires efficient maintenance of our infrastructure, whether hauling from farm to field or just moving produce from farm to market,” he said.
Good roads also are important to tourism, Ripp added. “How can we ask tourists to vacation in Wisconsin traveling on roads that may lengthen their trip and harm their vehicles?”
Meanwhile, Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt observed, “The condition of roads is just not something we can be proud of.”
Meanwhile wheel taxes have been adopted or are being considered in Marinette County, Wausau, Appleton and Portage.
The wheel taxes amount to higher vehicle registration cost. The local actions allow the governor to brag about his no-tax-increase policies.
Voters will decide whether Walker’s position reflects the gubernatorial leadership they want if he seeks re-election in 2018.