Don’t look for leadership from Gov. Scott Walker on getting people and products where they need to go in Wisconsin.
The governor’s Department of Transportation is requesting a state budget that pretends roads don’t cost more money to repair and improve. DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, at the direction of the governor, said Wednesday he won’t seek any major tax or fee increases — a move he acknowledged would delay projects across the state.
That leaves it up to the Republican-run Legislature to press for a fiscally responsible transportation budget, rather than stalling badly needed work and borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to get by.
The good news is GOP leaders in the state Assembly are showing some political courage by considering an increase in the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in a decade. The 30.9-cent-per-gallon tax is really just a user fee that charges motorists for driving on roads. Gas tax revenue has been basically flat since 2006, at about $1 billion a year, while the cost of road maintenance and construction has soared.
The governor’s irresponsible approach has been to borrow and delay. He sought $1.3 billion in borrowing for transportation in the current state budget, which the Legislature wisely reduced to $850 million. In the previous budget, the state borrowed $1 billion for roads.
That’s unsustainable and short-sighted, costing taxpayers more in the long run. When the state puts off maintenance, such as replacing asphalt on the base of a road, the base wears out faster. That shortens the lifespan of the road, causing more frequent and costlier reconstruction.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, gets that point. He says the Assembly is willing to consider a higher gas tax or vehicle registration fee after an audit of the highway program this fall. Raising needed revenue through reasonable user fees will allow the state to maintain good roads, saving taxpayers money over time.
Vos offers a powerful case for higher road revenue to fellow Republicans: “It is not more conservative to borrow and spend than it is to actually raise the revenue and allocate it efficiently,” he told the State Journal editorial board in March.
Another option worth pursuing is tolling some of the state’s interstate highways. The idea enjoys bipartisan support because it would bring in more revenue from Illinois tourists and over-the-road trucks. Illinois drivers are accustomed to paying tolls on major roads in their state. The tolls don’t require cars to stop.
The federal government would have to give its blessing to tolls in Wisconsin. Vos and others have urged Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to support the option. Some states have been granted waivers for tolling. If they don’t use those waivers, other states will have a chance. The Assembly wisely pushed for a study of toll roads, their impact and potential income in the current state budget.
Without more revenue from motorists, two Dane County projects face delay — the ongoing reconstruction of Verona Road, and the expansion of Interstate 39-90 from Madison to Beloit.
Iowa and Michigan have increased their gas tax to help pay for roads. Wisconsin should similarly raise user fees to cover increasing cost.