What will legislators do about transportation funding? And when will they actually do it? Those are two good questions that voters should be asking of every state representative and every state senator who faces election this fall.
Dealing with the crisis in transportation can’t be put off any longer. And finding Band-Aid solutions that just kick the problem down the road is no longer sufficient.
Legislators need to find a long-term sustainable answer to how to fund road maintenance, transit options and new roads. And they need to make sure that it’s based on a user system by which those who use the roads pay for them.
Everyone pretty much agrees on that; but there’s little agreement on how to solve the problem. A long-term solution requires a combination of tools and strategic thinking. What do we want and what are we willing to spend? It also requires that all the players come together for a healthy discussion.
We think the answer lies in a combination of modest gas tax and fee hikes, cutting back or delaying some road projects and finding more efficient ways of building them (as Gov. Scott Walker has suggested) and considering alternative revenue such as a vehicle-miles-traveled system or tolls. Borrowing might be necessary, too, but that should be kept to a minimum.
Legislators were just given another reminder of the seriousness of the issue by the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which reported that the state will need another $939 million over the next two years to match what lawmakers approved in the last state budget. So the state is nearly $1 billion short at the same time that a growing chorus of local government officials, citizens, transit users and road builders say Wisconsin is falling woefully short on meeting its infrastructure needs.
Reports by TRIP, a national transportation research group, and a 2013 state commission detail the problem: TRIP reported that, statewide, 42 percent of major roads are in mediocre to poor condition; in Milwaukee, it’s 56 percent; in Madison, 68 percent. More than 2,000 (14 percent) of the state’s bridges are in need of repair or modernization.
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And those are just maintenance issues. What about the need to complete major projects such as the Zoo Interchange and the I-94 and I-90 corridors? Yes, the state can delay some projects — and perhaps there are some that aren’t necessary at all — but how long before increasing traffic and an increased desire for more mass transit options put a real crimp on the state’s economy?
Walker says he won’t allow gas tax or fee hikes unless corresponding funding is cut from other state programs. OK, but how does he propose to pay for roads aside from cutting projects? And where else would he cut? Corrections? Education? Aid to local communities? Health care?
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) said he was open to other ideas, but considered raising the gas tax the best option because it is paid by state residents as well as visitors to Wisconsin.
“It’s not necessarily the fiscally conservative position to simply say no and to continue to delay projects and delay growth of our system and capacity in our transportation system that’s going to drive our economy for the next 30 years,” Nygren said.
Nygren makes a good point, but he’s missing a larger one. With ever more fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrid and electric vehicles, gas tax increases cannot provide a long-term solution by themselves. They’ll have to be part of the picture, but so will other revenue, including perhaps a VMT system or tolling, which every good Badger loathes but which the state is nevertheless studying.
The transportation problem is a bipartisan issue: Democrats in Milwaukee County suffer just as much as the Republicans in Waukesha County when roads go to pot. It requires a bipartisan solution. And it requires one soon.