Headlights of oncoming cars flashed briefly in my eyes as the vehicles bobbed over bumps on state highway 162 on a recent cold, dark night. Gretchen and I were driving home from a dinner with friends at their countryside home in northern Monroe County, a bumpy ride that reminded us of last year’s battle over funding for Wisconsin’s deteriorating roads.
It has been about a year since the Legislative Audit Bureau issued its scathing report about the condition of Wisconsin’s state highways. Wisconsin’s roads have consistently deteriorated over the past five years, the report said, and were in “considerably” worse shape than roads in six other Midwestern states.
After a long battle in the state legislature on the issue that contributed to a three-month delay in completion of the state budget, Assembly Republicans folded on their position that there should be significant revenue increases to make a permanent fix for the underfunded transportation fund. Gov. Scott Walker rejected proposals to increase the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, saying instead the state would increase transportation aids for local governments.
Asked about his plans at a listening session in Ashland, the local paper quoted him saying, “We are not embarking on brand new projects, we are certainly not doing any in the Milwaukee area, we are putting all our money in major increases for county municipal roads and bridges, and the largest amount we have ever put into state highway rehab.”
Fast forward then to last fall when the plan to attract Foxconn Technology Group’s assembly plant included $250 million in bonding for improvements to I-94 near the plant site. Further, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau pointed out the the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is shifting some $130 million of highway rehabilitation funds to local roads in the Foxconn project.
And the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin has pointed out that “the much-heralded increases to locals will help, but for many communities the boost in General Transportation Aids won’t even get them back to the funding they were receiving in 2011 if adjusted for inflation. This is made clear by the growing number of municipalities turning to wheel taxes.”
In La Crosse County, the county board “decided that deteriorating transportation infrastructure had reached a critical point and that the state was not likely to provide funds to address the need,” according to a report by District 15 Supervisor Monica Kruse.
The board is seeking permission from the state legislature to hold a binding referendum that, if successful, would add a half percent county sales tax to tourist-related items and services to help pay for road needs.
After the state’s 2017-19 budget was approved, Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said that it “does not even begin to address Wisconsin’s daunting transportation challenges.”
He added that the legislature accomplished its reduction in borrowing by decreasing the rehabilitation budget and delaying important projects.
“This will do nothing to improve the condition of Wisconsin’s roads, which U.S. News & World Report recently ranked 49th in the country,” Thompson noted.
Meanwhile, the hidden tax on Wisconsin drivers — the cost of repairs and upkeep on vehicles — was an estimated $529 per driver in Wisconsin in 2015, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group. That compares with an estimate of $282 per driver in Minnesota.
Five years ago, a legislative commission reported on its two-year study of the state’s transportation woes with a warning that “continuing the status quo level of investment will result in serious worsening in the condition and safety of state highways, increased urban highway congestion and reduced service levels for public transit.”
Their recommendation included increasing a variety of user fees, including a five cent increase in the gas tax to pay for projects over the next decade. The recommendations went nowhere.
Meanwhile, our state’s roads continue to deteriorate and Republican majorities in both house of the legislature and the Republican governor have failed to solve a problem that’s been years in the making. There’s an election this year that offers Wisconsin’s citizens who are sick of the accruing costs of bumpy roads a chance to vote for change.