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There are lots of reasons why transportation is a crucial part of Wisconsin’s economy – 6.5 billion of them. That’s the dollars that are in the transportation budget over the next two years.

Here are some positive points about the transportation budget:

  • The raid on the transportation fund, which resulted in the siphoning of $1.3 billion to pay for other state programs under former Gov. Jim Doyle — is over. That money has been paid back.
  • Bonding for major projects continues but at a lower level. Borrowing has declined by $155 million.
  • There is no increase in gas taxes or vehicle registration fees.
  • More than $35 million in sales tax revenue will be put into the transportation fund, which represents 7.5 percent of the revenue from sales of vehicles and vehicle parts.
  • The $2.8 billion of spending in the state highway improvement program is the same as the previous budget.

Transportation funding has been a challenge since the Legislature in 2005 stopped the annual gas tax increase. With more fuel-efficient cars and declining registration fees, many road projects were on the cut list because of declining revenue.

The budget also establishes the Transportation Finance and Policy Study Commission, which will investigate where future transportation funds should come from. We need some creative revenue options to keep our transportation system strong, unless we like the idea of toll roads, bad highways or failing bridges.

Good roads are the backbone of any economy, particularly a state like Wisconsin that relies heavily on transportation to support its manufacturing and agricultural base. The state has more than 112,000 miles of public roadway, which includes 11,753 miles (750 miles of interstate and 11,010 miles of state or U.S.-marked highways) in the State Trunk Highway System.

There are several major, high-profile construction projects in the state budget, such as the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange, expansion of the Interstate 39/90 corridor from Madison to the Illinois state line, and expansion of Hwy. 10 and Hwy. 441 in the Fox Valley.

Major projects under way in our region include a  four-lane highway expansion between Westby and Viroqua; a Hwy. 27 resurfacing project north of Sparta; a relocation of Hwy. 18 in Prairie du Chien; and a bridge replacement project in downtown Galesville.

Those are the projects that get the attention, but $1.6 billion in the budget is for repairing

or rehabilitating roads, says transportation secretary Mark Gottlieb, a reflection that the “fix it first idea” is not lost.

It’s not a perfect transportation budget. We don’t like the provision in the budget that would prohibit county highway departments from doing work outside their counties. But Gottlieb told the Tribune’s editorial board this week the provision should not prevent departments from helping each other out. Gottlieb said the restrictions only apply to road improvements, not maintenance projects.

We hope that’s the case. Any government rule that does not encourage collaboration as a means to save money is counterproductive.

We also have some concerns about the reduction of funds — $10 million — for general transportation aid to counties, which will be strapped to take care of local roads, but we understand that cuts were necessary. We’d also like to see a less hostile approach to mass transit and more regional transportation initiatives.

But overall, the budget keeps us investing in Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure. We cannot afford not to.

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