Op Ed

Roads Debate Much Ado About Nothing

Walker’s stance prevents any real debate about transportation budget.

By - Jul 5th, 2017 01:44 pm
Road Closed. Photo by Dave Reid.

Road Closed. Photo by Dave Reid.

Rarely have legislators fought so hard…for so little.

Given transportation ground rules set by Governor Scott Walker — and his recent comments to the Assembly GOP caucus — two things are clear:

  1. The debate now roiling the Capitol won’t make a meaningful dent in the gap between stagnant gas tax revenue and documented transportation needs.
  2. The exact same issues that underlie the current stalemate again will confront the Legislature in January 2019.

After ruling out a gas tax increase in the current session, the Governor last month told the Assembly GOP that, if re-elected, future transportation budgets will resemble the one he proposed earlier this year. Walker doubled down on the gas tax, saying he would oppose an increase in what would be his third term.

By pledging to veto a gas tax hike, the Governor has reduced the scope of debate to amounts that might sound large but in fact don’t approach well-documented needs.

For example, a proposed per-mile truck fee (on life-support as of last Friday) would merely restore highway funding to the inadequate level of 2015-17. That would lessen but not stop the continued growth of state highways in poor condition.

As for tolling, current federal law would limit it to a single individual corridor in the state’s interstate system.

Another idea— $350 million in still more borrowing — would be the latest in the  one-time infusions of highway debt that the GOP has relied on since 2011. It’s ironic that chest-thumping “conservatives” who oppose a higher gas tax have supported a multi-billion dollar borrowing spree. While they — and Governor Walker — talk of “living within our means,” the debt binge tells a very different story.

The “base budget” bargaining position advanced by Assembly GOP leaders is a direct challenge to the “live within our means” sound bite. It essentially is Walker’s proposed budget shorn of new debt.

This base budget is “laughable” to its detractors because it will force curtailment of some current and future projects. In other words, if forced to rely only on stagnant gas tax revenue the current highway program is unsustainable. Only by pulling out the credit card once again can those projects go forward. In contrast, Assembly Republicans argue a fundamentally conservative concept. Namely, don’t incur new debt without including the means to repay it.

When the dust settles on the current debate, as it eventually will, ignore references to “breakthroughs” that suggest anything approaching a long-term solution. Governor Walker long ago took that prospect off the table.

George Mitchell is a former journalist who has held positions in federal, state, and county government and served as a consultant to various governmental and private sector groups.

4 thoughts on “Op Ed: Roads Debate Much Ado About Nothing”

  1. Rachel Q says:

    The solution to Wisconsin’s transportation funding gap is to stop building new roads. Plain and simple. Focus on maintenance and we will begin to make strides toward “living within our means.”

  2. D Armstrong says:

    I’m conservative and its asinine that we are not indexing the gas tax, raising registration fees to at least match our neighbors and look to implement some sort of fee on hybrid vehicles as they put just as much wear and tear on roads as their less gas stingy counterparts but do not pay a proportionate fee due to their great gas mileage. I own one.

    Not increasing roads is not an answer. As the population in areas grow, the demand for roads does as well. Otherwise you will read the constant complaints of road users of long delays. As to the toll roads, I just finished a trip to New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. All of whom have toll roads. I have no problem with the State designating 94, 90 or a combination of the two as a toll road and collecting user fees to maintain.

  3. Doug says:

    Walker shut down the light rail opportunity in favor of cars. Then he allowed the roads the cars require to deteriorate so badly that they are among the worst in the country. It’s hard to recruit business and new jobs when Wisconsin’s transportation system is so poor. As Mitchell and Armstrong have said, there are lots of easy answers to this mess if Walker would put his ideological politics aside and make Wisconsin roads among the best in the country.

    George, you gotta run for Governor. You will win.

  4. J Milw says:

    Charging hybrid vehicle owners more for being fuel efficient is asinine. Individuals purchase a vehicle and whether its a truck or hybrid you decide on what features you want. To retroactively impose a tax on any vehicle (hybrid for it fuel efficiency or trucks for their increased weight and carbon emissions) is not what that owner signed up for and would be a disincentive to fuel efficient vehicles and harm the environment (which effects everyone’s health).

    Yes increasing the gas tax does negatively effects owners of less fuel efficient vehicles but so did the cost of gas when it was $4+. Its why increasing fuel efficiency in all vehicles is important – to reduce dangerous emissions and conserve a finite natural resource. If you really want to be fair then increase the vehicle registration and license fees.

    And IMO, this delay in the legislature is only occurring to give the Road Building Lobby enough time to get the Stadium Interchange in Milwaukee back on the table. Right now it’s been over engineered, like all of the recent interchange work (remember Norquist proposed less costly Marquette Interchange options) in order to Increase budgets and the road builder’s profits. With Republicans eliminating the prevailing wage law the Road Builders profits continue to increase at the expense of Wisconsin companies, workers, and all tax payers as “our’ representatives are increasing the State deficit. They’re just giving Lobbyist what they want.

    Its like the farmer let the fox into the hen house.

    If legislatures really cared about the people they would plan for the future that benefits the entire state and that would include mass transit in urban areas that’s separate and doesn’t drive the Interstate (Freeway flyers got stuck in the same traffic everyone else did). One that allows suburban commuters an alternate to being stuck in traffic, allows them time for work or phone calls while traveling and reduces their commute time. The thousands of vehicles removed from the highways would reduce volume and congestion, the “need” to expand to 8 lanes and the cost to build, and improve air quality in the City.

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