Throughout the last several years, transportation funding has been one of my top priorities. When I talk to the residents of the 17th Senate District, I constantly hear about the conditions of our roads and the needs of people who drive all over the state. The last budget was not good for rural roads. Most of the funding was dedicated to megaprojects in southeast Wisconsin and rural roads suffered as a result.
I am proud to report that the current budget will send more funding to municipal, county and state highway maintenance and construction. We also added reforms that will guide the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) toward improved efficiency and better management of our financial resources.
Last week, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), on which I serve, increased transportation aid for towns by 8.5 percent and dedicated $40 million more to General Transportation Aids (GTA) which fund road maintenance and projects for counties and municipalities. This is 9.5 percent more than they received last year. We also increased local bridge program funding by $7.5 million annually.
One of the worst roads in the 17th Senate District, Hwy. 154 between Loganville and the Richland County line, was scheduled for resurfacing in 2020 or later. I asked my colleagues to help us by moving the project up to 2018. We need to address problem roads in rural Wisconsin and we need to focus our attention where it is most needed. This budget does that.
We accomplished all of these increases and many reforms while keeping our transportation bonding to a historical low of $402 million, which is the lowest it has been since the 2003 budget. While I have opposed bonding in the past, this responsible level, along with a future funding stream when the PECFA bond payments sunset, makes the bonding in this budget palatable.
Our municipal public works and county highway departments do a great job of planning road projects in our communities. This budget provides more funding for local leaders to apply to their needs and to keep up with maintenance and growth. I know that citizens all over Wisconsin will notice a difference over the next two years. I am proud of the hard work we did to make sure that funding meets road needs throughout the state rather than concentrating all of our resources on megaprojects in one part of the state.
In addition to the direct funding allocations, we also outlined several reforms that will help the DOT become more efficient and effective in managing people, funding and resources.
One of the biggest reforms is a full repeal of the prevailing wage law for state road and building projects. This repeal will increase efficiency and reduce costs on state construction projects by removing the requirement that employers pay workers the hourly wage and fringe benefits paid to the majority of workers in a particular county. For counties with a major urban center, this requirement can drive up costs for projects throughout the county, rather than allowing an employer to determine the wage on a specific job. Current law forces employers to pay an artificially inflated wage which increases project costs.
The JFC also eliminated 200 positions at the DOT, which are mostly vacant positions. We gave the department latitude to manage these staffing changes as they work toward streamlining processes and procedures.
The DOT will also be required to institute a “Replace In Kind” option for road project planning. This option will estimate the cost to replace a road project under its current footprint without the “nice-to-have” add-ons such as new bike lanes, added lanes and design expansions. Too often, we are watching road replacement projects spiral beyond their budgets and take way too long due to unnecessary frills. Sometimes we just need to replace the road; and that’s it.
We also require the DOT to reform and reactivate the Transportation Projects Commission (TPC). This commission is statutorily designed to oversee and prioritize road construction projects. Members include legislators, citizens and DOT staff. However, the commission has not been active and operating as intended. I am a member of the TPC and we have never met during my tenure.
The reforms in the budget help to establish proper oversight over how transportation projects are enumerated with the intent to eliminate unnecessary projects, prioritize the most important projects and dedicate funding and resources where they are most needed. This reform, like most others, was derived from the results of the Transportation Audit performed over the last year.
Overall, I am optimistic about the Transportation section of the budget and appreciate the committee’s willingness to provide funding for needs throughout the state. It has been a difficult process and there was a lot of negotiation and research that went into this section. As the State Senator for the 17th Senate District, I am proud of the results and know that they will make a difference in the communities I serve.
The budget now moves to the Assembly and Senate for consideration. All budget-related documents and briefings are available on the Legislative Fiscal Bureau website as the budget process continues: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb.