Walker’s Freeway Farce
After blaming Barrett for "delaying" the Zoo Interchange, Walker is now stalling it, while rejecting a gas tax hike to pay for it.
Two years ago, conservatives had a field day going after Democrat Tom Barrett for allegedly delaying the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange. The issue arose during the 2010 gubernatorial race. The eventual winner, Republican Scott Walker, blamed the delay on the Milwaukee mayor, and a chorus of right-wing bloggers provided gleeful back-up, including Boots and Sabers, Freedom Eden, Badger Blogger, and James Wigderson. Charlie Sykes, working hard for Walker, dubbed it The Barrett Bypass and the Walker campaign grabbed the phrase, launching a website called the Barrett Bypass. In fact, you can still find this claim on the Walker campaign website.
All involved pointed to a letter Mayor Barret had written in June 2005 asking to delay funding for preliminary engineering of the interchange. The damning quote: “Unlike the Marquette Interchange, the Zoo Interchange will stand long enough for us to resolve these issues.”
But Barrett wasn’t actually requesting not to fund rebuilding the interchange. At the time Milwaukee County had not endorsed SEWRPC’s freeway plan and the City of Milwaukee was on record as opposing it. Barrett was looking for consensus, to “resolves these issues,” on the plan, prior to the state spending millions of dollars. As Barrett wrote in that same letter, “Let’s get agreement on our transportation priorities, before throwing $38 million at the highway engineers without a plan for what a successful interchange and freeway system will look like.”
Barrett, of course, had no authority over the state project and in reality very little pull with then Gov. Jim Doyle, but it didn’t matter; Walker and company successfully blamed the mayor.
Hence the irony that arose last month when Gov Walker’s WisDOT proposed delaying the project. In response, the Barrett Bypass crew found a new person to blame, the man that Walker appointed, WisDOT Secretary, Mark Gottlieb. Apparently, his “priorities are wrong.”
The budget request from Gottlieb almost offhandedly announces the delay: “In addition, reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee County will be delayed up to two years.” Perhaps inadvertently, Gottlieb goes on to reveal the real problem facing highway infrastructure funding, not just in Wisconsin, but America. “State and federal transportation revenues have not kept pace with these demands,” he notes. So there is not enough tax money in the till, yet Gottlied adds “Consistent with state budget policy goals, this request does not propose an increase in state taxes or fees.” Rather, he proposes to fund “our highest priorities within available revenues.”
This left Gov. Walker quite a dilemma. He was quick to distance himself from WisDOT’s proposal to delay the Zoo Interchange Apparently, the push back from that trial balloon was a bit too much.
And as quoted in the Journal Sentinel, Walker did his best to blame Doyle “for not doing more to get work started on the Zoo Interchange, the state’s busiest interchange.” But Walker is missing the bigger picture. It’s true the Doyle administration shifted funds from the transportation fund to the general fund, but that isn’t the long-term structural issue here. If the Doyle administration is to be criticized, it should be for passing the 2005 Wisconsin Act 85, which ended Wisconsin’s practice of indexing the gasoline tax. Since April 1, 2006, Wisconsin’s gas tax has been stuck at 32.9 cents a gallon. Although drivers may have appreciated this minimal relief, the tax freeze is a key contributor to the revenue shortfall Gottlieb describes.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Finance Commission, a bipartisan commission created by Gov. Walker to find ways to fund highway infrastructure, is contemplating a recommendation that the gas tax be increased by five cents and proposing a vehicles-miles-traveled tax. Gilman Halsted, of Wisconsin Public Radio, quotes Mary Hanson, a commission member, saying “We as a nation are going to have to move more to this usage base.” Both of these are valid solutions, but it looks as though Walker will run away from the findings of his own commission.
The governor has already hinting he will oppose a gas tax hike. And the concept of creating a new tax based on vehicle miles traveled seems far too progressive for this administration to support.
But even if a gas tax increase is somehow pushed through the state legislature, the long-term problem won’t be solved. It isn’t only Wisconsin’s gas tax that hasn’t kept up with inflation, the federal gas tax is in even worse shape. It hasn’t risen since 1993. It’s so short on funding it has become common for the transportation fund to receive an infusion of tax dollars from the general fund.
Finally, mix in America’s love affair with bigger is better and Madison, we have a problem. Instead of simply rebuilding I-94, WisDOT expanded and reconfigured I-94. It presided over the construction of new tunnels, new lanes, and new bridges. New ramps were opened while others were closed. Although technically not adding new lanes, the Zoo Interchange project will be built with 18-foot-wide shoulders so that these could be converted to additional lanes in the future. All of this expansion adds up, increasing construction costs on the front end and maintenance costs on the back end.
Will the Walker administration slow expansion of freeways and highways or raise revenue to pay for it? Neither seems likely to appeal to him, which leaves him with a real problem. Odds are, you can expect more cuts to mass transit and other programs (though even this won’t solve the problem). It’s yet another unfortunate example of America’s unquenchable desire for new concrete combined with an irrational, John Galt-styled opposition to any and all taxes.
— Transportation 4 WA (@Transpo4WA) November 23, 2012