Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Anti-Roads Governor

Why would a Republican governor be as anti-highways as Scott Walker?

By - May 17th, 2018 12:31 pm
Gov. Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

If you’re a disenchanted GOP supporter of Gov. Scott Walker looking to take some shots at him, the liberal Cap Times in Madison is the perfect venue. And so former transportation secretary Mark Gottlieb talked to reporter Katelyn Ferral and the Cap Times gave Gottlieb plenty of space to air his complaints.

Gottlieb charges that Walker didn’t want a real transportation plan or a comprehensive, well-thought-out approach to the state’s growing highway needs. “They wanted the department to submit a budget that pretended if we just went along like we were… everything would be fine,” he told the newspaper. “We got to a place where the facts were being ignored in favor of political spin.”  

Gottlieb, I should note, is a Republican of long-standing with a sterling reputation, and arguably one of the best appointments Gov. Walker ever made. A navy veteran and trained civil engineer, Gottlieb “worked on public road projects on the local and state level for more than two decades, served in the Assembly for eight years and is a former mayor of Port Washington,” as Ferral reports. 

Gottlieb was ranked as one of the 10 best legislators in a February 2009 Milwaukee Magazine feature, where he won raves from observers. “Scary smart,” said one observer. “The more complicated the bill, the more likely they’ll come to him for help.” Gottlieb, said a legislative staffer, was a detail man on budgets on par with longtime, legendary Legislative Fiscal Bureau head Bob Lang. 

Gottlieb is known as someone who cares about the future of the state, and tried his best as transportation secretary, serving six years (from January 2011 until December 2016) until resigning, probably pushed out by Walker, after Gottlieb told legislators that roads would worsen under the govenor’s approach to transportation.

By 2014, Ferral writes, Gottlieb began to realize Walker “was moving away from a goal he thought they shared: fixing the state’s transportation funding problem and its deteriorating roads.” 

Gottlieb had served on a high-profile transportation commission championed by Walker, and stacked with eight Republicans along with two Democratic members, which released a 176-page report in 2013 which affirmed  “what at least two other commissions led by both Republicans and Democrats over the last decade had found: Wisconsin’s highway system and local roads were rapidly deteriorating and there was not enough money to fix or maintain them,” Ferral writes. 

The commission concluded that in order to maintain a “safe and efficient system,” the state should spend $479.5 million more annually over the next ten years. Without this spending, the commission predicted that the percentage of state highways “that would fall into poor or worse condition would more than double, from 20 percent in 2013 to 42 percent in 2023,” Ferral writes. 

But when Gottlieb submitted a transportation budget which incorporated the commission’s call for more funding, “it took the governor less than 48 hours to reject that budget,” Gottlieb told the newspaper.  

For the 2016 budget, Walker didn’t even give Gottlieb an opening to present a realistic budget. The governor released a public letter to his own department head instructing Gottlieb to “Develop a budget request with specific priorities” and avoid “spending on mega projects.” 

After the DOT leader stepped down, Walker replaced Gottlieb and his deputies with Dave Ross, the governor’s safety and professional services secretary and two deputies from the Public Service Commission. 

The three “had a combined total of zero days experience in transportation,” Gottlieb tells the Cap Times. “Try to find any time in the past when that has been true. It is a very a complex agency and to install a set of top leaders who have no experience in that industry I think was a mistake.” 

Walker is now left with a divided party on transportation. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have both differed vociferously with the governor, calling for greater transportation funding. And he is badly exposed on an issue he campaigned on in 2010, when he called for more transportation funding and lambasted his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. 

To combat criticism on this issue, Walker has offered questionable numbers, claiming he spent billions more than Doyle on transportation. In fact, in real un-inflated dollars, Walker has actually spent less than Doyle, for whom transportation was a low priority. As Ferral notes, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has found that total highway funding under Walker declined from $3.11 billion in the 2013-15 budget to $2.79 billion in 2015-17 to $2.54 billion in 2017-19, and funding for the highway improvement program is down 8.8 percent from the last two-year budget.

In what looks like an attempt to reduce transparency about this trend, new DOT leader Dave Ross has provided less data. “The agency has not updated a key spending report, ‘Transportation Budget Trends,’ from its last two budgets. The reports are posted on DOT’s website and have been produced for decades,” Ferral reports. 

Walker and his loyalists have also tried to sully Gottlieb, as Urban Milwaukee Contrarian columnist George Mitchell noted in a piece for Right Wisconsin entitled “The Political Lynching Of Mark Gottlieb.” Mitchell charged that “Legislators who should know better joined Gottlieb’s successor in piling on. They portrayed WIDOT as a mismanaged agency during Gottlieb’s six-year tenure as Governor Walker’s transportation boss. As he surely OK’d the comments of Gottlieb’s successor, Dave Ross, the Governor himself was complicit in the attack.”

The conservative MacIver Institute joined in with a report claiming there were inefficiencies at DOT under Gottlieb, which he easily refuted with a point-by-point rebuttal.

Meantime, Wisconsin is left with a system of roads and highways ranked as 49th worst in the nation. The system would be even worse if not for lavish borrowing: the transportation fund’s debt has risen 87 percent under Walker, ballooning by $3 billion. According to the Fiscal Bureau, 22.3 percent of every Transportation Fund dollar will go toward debt retirement by 2019.

What’s astounding about this horrific decline in the state’s transportation system is that Walker is a Republican, a party that has long stood for strong transportation. What explains his stand on this? 

For Walker politics always comes before policy. And a mega-project like finishing the rebuild and expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee, even if it is the state’s most important transportation corridor, doesn’t go over well with outstate voters Walker needs. In a 2016 listening session in Ashland, Walker played to the outstate antipathy to Wisconsin’s biggest city, promising not a dollar for metro Milwaukee freeways. “We are not spending another penny down there for the next several years,” Walker said, according to a December 2016 story in the Ashland Daily Press.

Then there are Walker’s presidential ambitions. He still hopes to run again, most likely in 2024 (assuming he is reelected governor in 2018), and he signed the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise taxes and has repeatedly emphasized his unwillingness to raise the gas tax or any other tax to pay for transportation. 

Walker, of course, also turned down the federal expansion of Medicaid, so he could run in the Republican presidential primary as a stalwart opponent of Obamacare. This has already cost state taxpayers $700 million and that could rise to $1,3 billion by the end of 2020, money Walker might have spent on transportation.

Whatever the reasons for it, Walker may go down as the state’s most anti-transportation governor in modern history. 

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21 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Anti-Roads Governor”

  1. Eric J. says:

    Walker needs to be shown the exit door . It’s obvious he is doing harm to the state while pursuing his political career. Time to work in the real world Scotty like most of us.
    -He overlooks an obvious reality of the state road conditions and the ridiculous timelines to complete major projects.
    -Step aside now for the overall benefit to the state and let a leader lead.
    – Mark Gottlieb gave you the path forward and you dismissed it.

  2. michael says:

    The state routes on Milwaukee’s south side are completely obliterated in several spots: Chase, S. 1st Street, National.

    It’s almost like Walker doesn’t like Milwaukee…

  3. Terry says:

    Highways? You mean those pothole strewn wheel and alignment destroying sh#tways they call highways in Career Politician Scott Walker’s burned out Wississippi? We should all be given a free alignment paid for by the state kust for driving on those sh#tways, but we can’t because Walker gave all our money to FoxCON instead. Hell the highways are a disaster but I”ll take those anyday over the washed out rutted nearly impassable gravel trails they call “roads” where I live. You can’t even get in and out to my house many weeks out of the year! Yet I pay adtronomically high taxes for what? Nothing. No healthcare. No functioning roads. No business or job opportunities. The land lies fallow and the tractor sits idle. All we get is to be Lorded over by a gaggle of dim-witted, corrupt, Nanny State control freak petty tyrant republicans and bumbling Big Government mooching Career Politicians like Scott Walker who, via their asinine, regressive, backwards and totally failed policies are standing right in the way of my freedom and my continued prosperity. I take some solace in knowing that I at least get to pay for all the racost republican’s kids to go to school, albeit, crumbling under funded schools which all the best teachers have left after Walker destroyed their lives and prosperity via Act 10 but, schools nonetheless. You’re welcome republicans. Just remember, we are all in the same boat!

    Dump Walker 2018
    Legalize cannabis
    Pave the damn roads!

  4. “…that could rise to $1,3 million by the end of 2020…” Should that be #1.3 billion?

  5. somehow my intended $ sign came up #.

  6. Dumbledore says:

    What’s even worse is that the current DOT leadership has absolutely no concern for the long-term needs of the system. Consider Secretary Ross’ testimony to the Joint Finance Committee in March 2017 when he essentially told legislators that he didn’t care if projects took an extra 25 years to complete because he wouldn’t be around for them. They do not have goals to support the economy or ensure future viability for the state. The sole goal of the current leadership is to not raise revenue – which is horribly ironic since President Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan will almost exclusively benefit states that DO raise their own revenue.

    And not only do Secretary Ross and his team have no transportation experience – they removed or marginalized many of DOT’s top managers who served under Secretary Gottlieb from their positions such that most of them have now left the agency.

  7. Bruce Murphy says:

    Ed, thanks for note, yes, that should be $1.3 billion, I corrected it.

  8. David Coles says:

    I am a left-leaning guy and generally no fan of Scott Walker, but this is one issue where I like what he has done. Spending public coffers on expensive highways is disastrous for our planet and for public health. Accounting for externalities and considering all of the subsidies involved, highways are the most expensive way to move people around. Private ownership of cars is a quickly dying way of life. Transportation spending should be focused on maintenance of local streets in cities and towns, mass transit, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Refusing to fund the I-94 boondoggle in Milwaukee was a smart move, and one that should be applauded by people of all political stripes.

  9. Stacy says:


  10. Dumbledore says:

    @ David Coles – couple of points:

    1. Understand that the Walker Administration is spending less on everything, not just freeways. This administration is not friendly to transit, bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure and is really only paying lip service to local roads. Keep in mind that state trunk highways are often the literal Main Streets in small communities.

    2. Transportation is NOT an either/or situation – it should be all solutions, each carrying the types of trips that are best handled by that mode. Local streets in Milwaukee or elsewhere should never be carrying the volume nor types of traffic (e.g. trucks) that a freeway carries.

    3. Private ownership of cars is not “quickly dying” and not even in major urban areas. Nationwide, vehicle miles of travel hit an all-time high last year. Even where shared ownership or ride-sharing services are increasing, this has actually increased traffic (see articles from California). If population continues to grow, all modes of transportation are needed.

  11. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    As Dumbledore notes- if Walker was adding money to transit or car alternatives, your take might add up. But he’s kept transit funding 10% below what it was 8 years ago, and other alternatives have basically had state funding eliminated. And yet borrowing has STILL gone up and local governments are letting their roads fall apart.

    Plus, businesses use the highways and freeways, even if people choose other alternatives (and they generally don’t). And businesses decide to locate where good highways and infrastructure exist.

    Also worth noting- a 0% increase in spending on roads would mean more potholes, more local wheel taxes, and more borrowing in a time of rising interest rates. It’s a stupid, inefficient mentality, but as Bruce alludes to, Scotty cares more about kissing up to the Kochs and to Grover Norquist than in taking care of the transportation needs of the people of Wisconsin.

    The only way it changes, and the only way our road situation will be improved, is if Scotty is removed as Governor this November.

  12. Thomas says:

    Tommy Thompson, and other governors of his time, overspent federal highway dollars on roads such as WI 29, which is nearly as fast as an interstate highway from Green Bay to MN, and on U.S. 30, a route as fast and a fraction as travelled as the Ohio and Indiana Turnpikes. The WI 29 and US 30 jewels were built while secondary roads to and through our cities were neglected. Walker lacked the vision to find funding for highways anywhere in the state – leaving most of us to drive on decaying roads while a few lucky ones up north cruise at Autoban speed from Green Bay to Minnesota.

    What Walker has lost in terms of quality of life in WI may be matched by the opportunities he has missed at possible improvements as his fetishes for cutting taxes and shrinking government have resulted in our sinking to the status of a Wississippi – where we drive our prematurely beater cars over beaten up roads all over the state.

  13. old baldy says:

    Several important points have been missed here that should be brought up:

    1- Walker took $90 million out of the DOT statewide budget and put it all on Foxconn, That is over a $ million per county that could have been used for improvements/maintenance in every county in the state. Folks out here in the hinterlands see that as a significant slight to rural WI. Let’s hope they remember in November.

    2- Those of us in the rural parts of the state that depend on industries/businesses related to agriculture, tourism or forestry depend on those County trunk and town roads for our survival. Walker has sorely neglected those important aspects of the transportation infrastructure in all his transportation budgets. To make matters worse, large ag operations are now allowed to used bigger and heavier equipment on those local roads at the expense of the local unit of government and non-ag taxpayers.

  14. Geoff Davidian says:

    Mike McCabe has been saying this for years, and he would have fixed roads before giving foreign corporations money to move to Wisconsin. I guess our roads are so bad we have to pay people to move here. When Mike is elected governor he will legalize marijuana, tax it, and use money saved on imprisoning kids for education and roads.

  15. Tom says:

    Honestly Walker and republicans have turned Wisconsin into the corruption capital of America and left the roads and infrastructure looking like some bombed out Third World country all while running up a massive billion dollar DOT debt and giving 4.5 billion of our and our children’s tax dollars to a Taiwainese company. So great to see Walker’s donor and finance chair for his re-election somehow got the contract to oversee the foxcon job development. So shocking. The only job anybody else will get in the state is a con job but I bet the roads around foxcon will be great, everybody else in Wisconsin be damned!
    We gotta fire Walker and repubs in November or all of our futures are toast.

  16. Dumbledore says:

    @old baldy – great points, but this also speaks to why a solution is needed that generates more revenue for all systems. Wisconsin has many iconic manufacturers located in rural communities that need good roads even with volumes of less than 5,000 per day. Wisconsin also has over 100,000 vehicles using I-94 every day from Milwaukee to Waukesha on essentially the same six lane configuration and base that was built around 1960. This can’t be an either/or situation – we need both types of roadways to be improved along with the other modes and options.

    Governor Walker and the DOT leadership want to pit one (rural roads) against the other (I-94) while in reality funding neither sufficiently.

  17. max says:

    This an example of Walker’s lack of moral courage, doing the right thing, the needed thing, the thing that in long run is good for all, a key attribute of leadership. When lacking in nominal leaders, whether they be in politics, in business, in any field, they ultimately fail, leaving the next person to clean up the mess they made. And there is a huge mess Walker has made in WI by constantly sticking his finger in the air measuring the wind velocity to determine what position he’ll take to retain his cherished 50.001% of the vote, in the next election, rather than considering WI needs years out. Fortunately, people are returning to the importance of moral courage, the unintended affect of having far too many politicians at the national and state level turning a blind eye to the corruption, cynicism, and constant attacking of those with the courage to speak the truth, like Mark Gottlieb in this case.

  18. MKE Kid says:

    The bottom line is Walker has been a career politician his entire life and has never put in an honest day of work ever since he was forced to resign from Marquette. He doesn’t give a damn about anybody besides himself and his contributors. He’s a total slimeball who’s always relied upon flunkies to do his dirty work for him. Are any of his county exec staff members still in prison?
    I actually voted for him when Ament resigned. I was on the local news when I signed the Ament recall petition. I shook hands with Scotty when he was campaigning. I was so enthused about this fresh new face in Milwaukee politics. OMG. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I grasped Walker’s clammy limp palm and I looked at his sweaty and plain weird face and vacant eyes. He didn’t care. His eyes were already looking over my shoulder at the next dupe in line.
    Thank God I learned from my mistake. Too many still have not learned and never will. No wonder Wisconsin is so dead last in positive polls as far as economic growth, start ups, etc.


    Dumbledore knows a lot. Current or former WIDOT employee in all probability.

  20. MrMojoRisin says:

    Former Secretary Gottlieb is spot on with the statements he has made regarding the existing state of transportation in WI. He is also on target when he said it was a mistake to hire people with no transportation experience to run a complex agency like DOT (Ross, Seitz, other members of the Insane Clown Posse, e.g.). I voted for Walker several times as I saw him as someone that was surrounding himself with the best and brightest (Gottlieb, e.g.) to help run our great State. He has become a follower (of national money) instead of a leader and now surrounds himself with under-qualified “yes” people (again, Ross, Seitz, et al). It is unfortunate for the high level professional staff at DOT that they are no longer allowed to make decisions for the citizens they serve, but must follow instructions only to serve the political ambitions of the Governor. As was mentioned in an earlier post by Dumbledore, many of DOT’s top managers have been marginalized or left state service altogether. I hope there is enough glue left at DOT to put the pieces back together when they’re gone.

  21. John says:

    Another great article from Bruce. For more insight on Walker’s reasoning…

    “The events showed the diminishing influence of state-grown business groups like the road builders, once an unmatched political force because of its statewide network and capacity for campaign contributions, said [Tim] Cullen.”

    …Now the rise of a stricter conservative ideology, fostered by Americans For Prosperity and other national conservative groups, has changed that, [Cullen] said”

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