The short-term fix for better Wisconsin roads is a modest increase in the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in more than a decade.
The long-term solution, given that vehicles of all sorts are burning less gas and transitioning to electric power, is a mileage fee for vehicle owners, and open-road tolling on interstate highways.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, unlike his predecessor, understands the state can’t maintain a solid transportation system without a steady stream of revenue that at least keeps pace with inflation. The Republican-run Legislature seems to get that, too.
So a reasonable agreement appears likely, as Evers prepares to unveil his first state budget request.
Former GOP Gov. Scott Walker stubbornly resisted any increase in fees on motorists for political reasons. He thought he could impress presidential primary voters, but his dreams of winning the White House quickly faded.
Walker also thought his opposition to raising more road revenue would play well with Wisconsin voters. But he lost his re-election bid last fall.
Evers and others correctly faulted Walker for neglecting Wisconsin’s roads, which have ranked near the bottom among the 50 states for their poor condition. Bad roads are a drag on business and the economy. They also threaten public safety.
To their credit, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, tried in varying ways during Walker’s tenure to push for fiscally responsible solutions to the state’s deteriorating roads. But Walker always punted the problem into the future.
That changes this year, with a new governor and bipartisan support for a lasting fix.
Motorists shouldn’t fear having to pay more money. That’s because they’ve been gradually paying less over time. As motorists purchase vehicles that get better gas mileage, they save money on fuel and pay less gas tax. Moreover, an increasing number of drivers avoid the gas tax all together by operating electric vehicles.
Wisconsin needs a modern system of user fees that treats all drivers fairly. Electric and hybrid vehicles pay a higher registration fee because they contribute less in gas tax. Nonetheless, state revenue for roads will continue to slip without corrective action in the coming state budget.
The state’s gas tax of 32.9 cents per gallon has been flat since 2006, which has slowed the collection of money for roads. To try to keep up with rising costs, Walker increased borrowing, which was irresponsible.
Vos and Fitzgerald spoke in favor of toll roads last week in Madison. Many Democrats, including Evers, are open the idea, too.
Modern tolling — in which motorists mount a device on their windshield so they never have to stop for toll booths — can raise billions of dollars over time on the interstates. The challenge is gaining federal approval for tolls, which could take years.
So in the coming budget, a gas tax increase, higher registration fees or some sort of mileage charge will be needed to improve our roads.
Evers and the GOP-run Legislature must cooperate to steer our transportation system forward.