Despite more than $1 billion a year in road construction and hundreds of millions more on maintenance, Wisconsin’s transportation system is falling behind and facing a shrinking revenue stream.
That was the message transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb brought Tuesday to the first of nine planned town hall meetings in La Crosse, where he was met with a packed house full of opinions.
With about 3,500 workers and a budget of more than $3.5 billion, the Department of Transportation is one of Wisconsin’s largest state agencies, supporting all modes of transportation, including state highways, local roads, railroads, public transit systems, airports, harbors and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
But the department faces a $600 million funding gap in the next two-year budget cycle. And with Americans driving fewer miles in more efficient vehicles, it’s facing a 20 percent decline over the next decade in fuel tax revenues, the DOT’s single largest source of funding.
“We are falling behind,” Gottlieb said.
The Legislature hasn’t approved an increase for the fuel tax since 1997, and the 30.9 cent tax hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 2006.
Gottlieb highlighted recommendations of the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, which called for an additional $680 million a year to maintain current system. About 96 percent of that money would go toward improving roads and closing the current funding deficit; the rest would be split among other modes, such as rail, water, air, bike and pedestrian.
The goal of the town hall meetings, Gottlieb said, is to get feedback on transportation needs and how the state should finance those needs into the future.
Public opinions were strong, if not necessarily in agreement.
Some called for better support for passenger rail; others complained that crumbling rural roads and bridges are preventing farmers from getting their crops to market.
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Matthew Christen, who said he’s put 17,000 miles on his bicycle in the past six years, called on the DOT to recognize bicycles as a bona fide mode of transportation.
Bikes account for about 2 percent of trips, he said, yet receive no dedicated funding.
Gottlieb said additional funding for bike-pedestrian infrastructure is unlikely unless the state solves the larger funding issue.
“I try to be a realist,” he said. “I kind of have to be in my job.”
Many voiced disdain for roundabouts.
Gottlieb said roundabouts aren’t the answer in every situation, but he cited a University of Wisconsin study that showed a 38 percent reduction in fatalities.
“We’re saving people’s lives and reducing serious injuries,” he said.
Appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to head the transportation department, Gottlieb previously served as a Republican Assemblyman, representing the 60th District from 2003 through 2011. Prior to that he was mayor of the Ozaukee County city of Port Washington from 1997 to 2003.
“I try to be a realist. I kind of have to be in my job.” Mark Gottlieb, secretary of the state Department of Transportation