6/25/2020 – The Daily Reporter

As is true for so many aspects of modern life, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t so much revealed weaknesses in the state’s transportation as made long-recognized faults even more apparent.

For decades, transportation advocates have been warning that Wisconsin’s current methods for raising money to pay for roads, bridges and modes of transport have not kept pace with maintenance and improvement needs. Of particular concern has been Wisconsin’s heavy reliance on the gas tax, which has for years been yielding diminishing returns in an age of ever-greater fuel efficiency.

The recent economic shutdown imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus has done nothing to help. In a recent interview with the news organization WisconsinEye, WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said the unprecedented number of people who had either lost their jobs or taken to working from home during the pandemic had depressed travel enough to cost the state about $80 million worth transportation revenue. And though vehicles miles traveled have since been recovering, he warned a second shutdown in response to another COVID-19 outbreak could push the deficit into the hundreds of millions in the state’s next fiscal year. Such a gaping a hole would be nearly impossible to fill without some new means of raising revenue.

It’s a situation that Debby Jackson, who succeeded Thompson at the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association after he was nominated to WisDOT, is well familiar with. In her roughly year and a half serving as executive director of the organization — and her more than 15 years working on the staff there before that — she has repeatedly grappled with the question: What’s the best way to pay for the state’s transportation system?

Rather than offer a specific answer, she and her collaborators have used a campaign called “Just Fix It” to try to make sure lawmakers understand the gravity the situation. Jackson recently sat down with The Daily Reporter to discuss not only what the coronavirus has meant for the state’s transportation system but also what lawmakers can do to put that system on a sound footing for the long term. (This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

The Daily Reporter: What are your thoughts about the current state of Wisconsin’s transportation fund?

Debby Jackson: Well, at the peak of the traffic reduction — shortly after the stay-at-home order — so let’s say through mid-April, traffic was down about 40(%) to 50%. Which is a significant drop. And that’s a blend of truck and passenger traffic. After mid-April, people were getting a little antsy and it started to pick up. After the Supreme Court ruling, it ticked up even more. And it seems to be going up a little bit each week.

Now we’re down, compared with last year, about in the teens.

So, yes, there is going to be a shortfall in fiscal year 2020. But the department was able to find savings to offset that and all our transportation projects are going forward. There are 371 that are moving forward with this summer. I think 100 are currently under construction.

TDR: What about the following fiscal year?

Jackson: You know the department has not given us a good estimate. The secretary has kind of put out worst-case scenarios. And he did also say that keeping everything on the schedule for next season could be challenging if there isn’t some intervening action. So we’re watching this. But it’s still early yet.

TDR: With revenue likely falling, what steps should government officials be taking?

Jackson: First of all, there is a possibility that we would get assistance from the federal government. This shortfall in state revenue was flagged by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials in the middle of April. They wrote a letter to congressional leaders and said, ‘Hey, we think that state revenue, on average around the nation, could be down 30% over the next 18 months.’ And they put in a request and asked for a $50 billion backstop to be included in the next coronavirus-relief bill.

At the same time, they also asked for Congress to do a timely reauthorization of the surface transportation programs, which now expire on Sept. 30. That’s basically the federal aid for highways, rails, transit and safety. With those two things, they are saying: Give us some short-term emergency help and then give us a long-term framework on which to be able to plan.

TDR: What should state lawmakers do?

Jackson: Here I’m going to be a little bit more careful because our policy for a long time through the Just Fix It campaign has really been not to talk about specific options and really to say that our goal is a modern interconnected transportation system. And we need to be able to at least maintain conditions, if not improve them. We’re really open to all items being on the table if they move us in that direction.

TDR: Are you worried the working-from-home trend will persist and result in permanently lowered traffic numbers?

Jackson: As humans, we like to see around the corner. We’re not comfortable with uncertainty. So we want to see the next trend so that we can then get back into our comfort zone. But commuter surveys have suggested about 5% of Wisconsinites have historically worked from home. The question is: What will that look like in a year or two years? Also, will people start going back to public transit? And then, those constant deliveries at my front door from the online purchases — how will that affect traffic counts? So these are all things that that I would just put in the: We-don’t-know category. And I’m afraid we’re all going to have to just get a lot more comfortable saying those words.