Wisconsin has a problem with bad roadways and infrastructure. More importantly, the state has a problem with people running for legislative seats this fall who feel comfortable ignoring the issue, which promises only more of the same. In a very real sense, the steady crumbling of the state’s roads are just one of the more visible manifestations of leadership that so averse to funding public assets and services that they’re willing to let things diminish and fall apart, rather than support a coherent, adequate and sustainable system of support.
Two years ago, an aggressive plan to maintain and improve Wisconsin’s roadways quickly died because it didn’t fit well with then-presidential hopeful Scott Walker’s narrative and it therefore couldn’t gain traction in the legislature. At 70 days, his official campaign was the shortest in decades, but the continuing policy damage is still being felt. A couple of weeks ago, Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb announced that his department’s request to the governor will not propose any major revenue increases. Gottlieb acknowledges this will delay road expansion work and upkeep for all but the state’s most-traveled highways.
This comes on the heels of a report in April 2015 that ranked Wisconsin’s roads as third-worst in the nation. A dozen years ago, state’s roads ranked No. 22, so the fact that they’re going downhill under Walker and this GOP legislature is not really a debatable point. The deterioration of streets and highways affects almost every industry and motorist in the state, according to the study commissioned by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute. It is estimated to average hundreds of dollars in additional annual maintenance costs for car owners, compared to other states.
The Transportation Development Association (TDA) recently completed a series of regional meetings around the state to underline the problem. Their theme is “Just Fix It” and although they’re not really offering solutions, they’re right to bring the problem into focus. It would be better if they would just come out and say what needs to be said and it is this: If we want to stop our roadways from going to hell, we need a sustainable solution toward funding the necessary work. Then offer some alternatives. A good start might be refusing to support the re-election of the same people who continue to refuse to deal with the issue in a thoughtful, long-term fashion.
Part of the problem was manufactured a decade ago by short-sighted legislators angling for votes in the 2006 election. The largest source of revenue for the state’s Transportation Fund is the state gasoline tax. There is very little growth in gas tax revenue; far less than income or sales taxes. That’s because the rate per gallon does not change, regardless of the price of gasoline. Cars became more efficient and many people began driving less in more recent years, so the revenue stream can’t keep up with construction and maintenance costs. Beginning in 1985, the legislature had addressed this problem by creating an annual indexing adjustment. Indexing originally called for the state gas tax to be adjusted annually on April 1 based on inflation and overall fuel consumption.
In 1997, lawmakers removed the consumption factor and based the adjustment only on changes in the Consumer Price Index. This was not wise. It resulted in actual reductions in 1989 and 1994, but things were made even worse in 2005, when the Legislature eliminated the annual indexing adjustment entirely, with the last adjustment made April 2, 2006.This provided insignificant relief to consumers when gas rose above $4 a gallon that summer, but it gave legislators the opportunity to act like they were doing something.
Leading up to and after Walker’s election in November 2010 with GOP majorities in both houses of the legislature, Republicans were fond of blaming Governor Doyle for “robbing the transportation fund.” The thing is that the transportation budget remained funded under Doyle with borrowing; it was not defunded. As a show of concern toward a problem that they have shown absolutely no intention of actually trying to solve over the past half dozen years, the GOP legislature floated a statewide referendum in November 2014 for a constitutional amendment:
Question 1: “Creation of a Transportation Fund. Shall section 9 (2) of article IV and section 11 of article VIII of the constitution be created to require that revenues generated by use of the state transportation system be deposited into a transportation fund administered by a department of transportation for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems and to prohibit any transfers or lapses from this fund?”
The TDA, whose membership had been almost all in for Walker’s 2010 election, dutifully hit the road to promote the amendment. As members of the Marathon County Board, John Robinson and I opposed the measure, even though we knew it was doomed to succeed. The reason was because it wouldn’t (and hasn’t) produced a nickel of revenue to support Wisconsin’s roadways. It was political window dressing. The measure passed statewide with nearly 80 percent of the vote. It has accomplished nothing toward solving Wisconsin’s transportation funding issue, as some of us predicted at the time. This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that faced with delays and inflation over the past five years, just four major state highway projects have accumulated overruns in excess of $700 million.
With gasoline prices diving below $2 per gallon this spring, the governor and the state legislature had a golden opportunity to address the transportation funding crisis in Wisconsin by raising the gas tax. It could have been easily absorbed without economic shock and it would have put the state on the road toward healthier infrastructure. (No, I’m not a big fan of odometer-based taxing schemes that essentially turn every street and roadway in the state into a toll road — up to and including your driveway.)
It’s not as if people don’t understand that other aspects of driving have become more expensive. Experian reports that the average cost of new cars purchased in the first quarter of the year topped $30,000 for the first time ever. But our feckless leadership in Wisconsin continues resist sensible funding levels, even while borrowing hundreds of millions more than they should so they can pretend they stood firm against tax increases. All the while, they’re putting us in the hole fiscally – and literally, in the form of potholes. Bad policy should be bad politics, but apparently that’s not the case.
Wisconsin is now paying nearly 20 percent of its transportation budget on debt service, according to the TDA. That number is only going up and it is leading county and municipal governments to take measures on their own to make up for being shortchanged and limited by the state in their ability to raise revenue. Marshfield is looking at a referendum that could bump up property taxes by 11 percent over the next five years to deal with the expense of repairing its streets. Marathon County is considering a wheel tax to help it deal with need to maintain more than 600 miles of county trunk highways. The La Crosse City Council approved a proposal from Mayor Tim Kabat last week to increase the street budget for next year by nearly $3 million to help the city catch up on street repairs; money that will have be taken away from other priorities. Out of the 225 miles of roadways in La Crosse, 50 miles are rated at a 4 or worse on a one-to-10 scale.
While the local leaders will have to take it on the chin for whatever adjustments they have to make to other services or revenues they need to raise, the governor and his Republican majorities can continue to puff out their chests and say they never raised taxes. The truth is that they did, by creating a situation in which others are forced to take the responsibility that they shirk. And while local government attention will help a little, it won’t be nearly enough and it won’t touch most of Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure.
I would love to say that Wisconsin deserves better, but people get what they vote for. Senator Jerry Petrowski, who is chair of the Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee and vice chair of the Economic Development and Commerce Committee, is unlikely to ever be called into account for the declining condition of the state’s roadways on his watch or the continuing failure to address them with a sustainable, long-term funding solution. He’s been at this for a long time, chairing the Transportation Committee for the Assembly before moving to the Senate in 2012. Rep. Keith Ripp, who now chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, represents a rural district north of Madison that he easily carries with wide spreads because that’s the way it was designed and that’s the way it is. Scott Walker was elected governor three times in four years. Things will not improve until voters are willing to demand it by electing people who are committed to advancing the public good instead of telling them they don’t need to pay for things that are important.
Wisconsin’s local government leaders issued a statement on the state of Wisconsin’s Transportation system today:
Rep. Katrina Shankland’s response to Wisconsin’s continuing infrastructure funding gap: