President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to spend big on America’s infrastructure injects a new variable into Wisconsin’s already thorny debate on how to pay for roads, bridges and transit.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump pledged to spend $1 trillion to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure.
An infusion of federal infrastructure funds, should it come soon to Wisconsin, would arrive at an opportune time. A debate raged here well before the November election about how to address a mounting funding imbalance in the state’s transportation network.
Now that Trump is bound for the White House, some in Wisconsin say state lawmakers should pause that debate until it’s clear what, if anything, will come from Washington, D.C. — even if that means waiting months.
Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said Nass “has been very cautious just to say, ‘we may have a major change coming.’ ”
“Before we say ‘Cut everything under the sun,’ before we start raising all these fees, let’s see what the new administration is going to put out there,” Mikalsen said.
Others — particularly those who say the state needs more transportation revenue — fear Trump’s plan could quell momentum for such an increase, which likely would come from increasing taxes or fees.
After years of inaction on transportation, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says, Wisconsin can’t afford to wait further — even to see what will be done by his fellow Republicans in the federal government.
“We would be foolish to wait for an answer from Washington,” said Vos, R-Rochester.
“There’s the potential that they’ll be a partner. But I, at the same time, don’t know that. And I don’t want to wait around and then they don’t do it — and then we’re in the same boat, or even worse.”
‘It’s wishful thinking’
Vos and other Assembly Republicans have maintained that increasing the gas tax or vehicle registration fee, the two main revenue sources for the state transportation fund, should be considered to bring state road funding into balance.
Craig Thompson, director of Wisconsin’s Transportation Development Association, views the issue of federal help for roads similarly.
“For people thinking it’s going to bail us out, I think it’s wishful thinking,” Thompson said.
As road construction costs soared and transportation-fund revenues stagnated in recent years, the state increasingly delayed road projects or relied on borrowing to fund them.
Recent U.S. Department of Transportation data say the condition of Wisconsin’s roads lags other states. Outgoing Wisconsin DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb has said the share of state trunk highways in poor condition would double in the next decade without an infusion of new money.
Thompson’s association — an alliance of businesses, unions, local governments and other groups — advocates for more transportation revenue.
But the leading options to collect that revenue — a gas tax or registration fee increase — are politically fraught. Thompson acknowledges some lawmakers reluctant to increase taxes or fees might seize on Trump’s plan as reason to stall.
“They could use ‘The feds are going to do something’ as an excuse,” Thompson said.
Before state lawmakers get serious about Trump’s infrastructure initiative, it remains to be seen if it will be embraced by a Republican Congress that’s typically skeptical of big government spending.
How to pay for it?
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan recently said infrastructure is “one of our high priorities that we’re going to be addressing this year.” But Ryan, of Janesville, has stopped short of endorsing Trump’s preferred $1 trillion price tag for such a measure.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flatly rejected that number, saying, “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.”
The sticking point on any infrastructure package would be how to finance it. In October, Trump’s campaign offered the bare contours of a plan that would look to the private sector.
The proposal, prepared by two Trump advisers, calls for using federal tax credits to generate $1 trillion in private-sector infrastructure investment over a decade. Experts say it’s unclear how effective the unconventional proposal would be at generating the needed funds.
Thompson said any plan to privately finance roads in Wisconsin would require a revenue stream for investors, which he said likely would require tolling— a practice to which the state’s motorists are not accustomed. Tolling on U.S. interstates, where it would generate the most revenue, also would require federal permission.
Most recently, some D.C. lobbyists have begun to question Trump’s basic commitment to an infrastructure plan.
Trump, in a post-election interview with The New York Times, seemed to back away from the issue, saying infrastructure won’t be a “core” part of the first few years of his administration.
Trump acknowledged that he didn’t realize during the campaign that New Deal-style proposals to put people to work building infrastructure might conflict with his party’s small-government philosophy.
“That’s not a very Republican thing — I didn’t even know that, frankly,” Trump said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.