9/5/2017, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – by Patrick Marley and Jason Stein

MADISON – The Legislature’s budget committee signed off late Tuesday on a GOP package that would delay two massive road projects in Milwaukee County, put limits on the city’s streetcar line and impose a $75 surcharge on hybrid vehicles.

Among the projects that would be delayed are the north leg of the Zoo Interchange and the section of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges. Other projects around the state would be pushed back as well.

The sweeping, 20-page plan would also curb the ability of local governments to regulate quarries, cut 200 jobs at the Department of Transportation and once again study the possibility of tolling on Wisconsin highways.

The Joint Finance Committee approved the plan, 12-4, at 10:30 p.m., with all Republicans voting for the project and all Democrats voting against it. The leaders of the committee said they planned to wrap up their work on the budget Wednesday.

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the committee, said lawmakers were improving the state’s transportation budget – but not as much as he’d hoped.

“This is one that is left unsolved,” he said. “I hope the reforms that we have in this package get us closer, yet my belief is we’re still going to be having this conversation two years from now.”

Under the package, Milwaukee could not use its tax incremental financing district to pay to operate its planned downtown streetcar line. It also could not use state transit aid to operate or build the streetcar line.

City officials will review those provisions over the coming days, said Patrick Curley, the chief of staff to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

“For a project that has no state money, it certainly does raise the temperature of a number of legislators,” he said by text message.

Some Republicans hailed the transportation plan, saying it would reduce the cost of projects by eliminating the state’s prevailing wage law that sets minimum salaries for construction workers building roads and other taxpayer-funded projects.

“This will be a huge victory for the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin,” Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) said.

Democrats contended Republicans had avoided addressing the underlying problems that have strained the state’s transportation fund.

“This doesn’t do anything to fix the problem,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).

The proposal included $402 million in borrowing for transportation over the next two years. Borrowing for roads has divided Republican lawmakers for months and the amount they settled on is well below what has been included in recent budgets.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), a co-chairwoman of the budget committee and a key negotiator of the deal, said it was “short-sighted” not to move forward with the major Milwaukee projects, calling them essential to the state’s economy.

“I am disappointed about the I-94 East-West,” Darling said. “It’s so critical to our economic development.”

That project is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

Republicans control all of state government but lawmakers were unable to approve a budget by the July 1 start of the fiscal year because of differences over transportation and tax cuts. State funding has been continuing at levels set in the last budget.

The package includes a grab-bag of policy and projects:

  • Work on the north leg of the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee County would be banned, but a 7.5-mile stretch of section of I-94 on the other side of the state, in St. Croix County, would be approved.
  • The state would spend $2.5 million to study tolling – much as it spent $1 million in the last budget to look into the issue.
  • Local governments would be barred from regulating quarries, such as those used by roadbuilders to collect gravel. They would continue to have the ability to regulate sand mines, despite a move by some to take that power away from them.
  • The Department of Transportation would have to cut 200 jobs. The move comes four years after the Walker administration and lawmakers agreed to hire 180 engineers because they found it cost less to use state engineers to design projects than contract with private engineering firms. Now, many, if not all, of those engineering positions could be cut as the department sheds staff.
  • The Department of Transportation would gain wider latitude – with the approval of the budget committee – to decide which projects get a share of the state’s federal funding. State projects that received only state and local funding would be able to avoid federal requirements that are more stringent – and more costly – than state rules.
  • The Department of Transportation would be required to study installing traffic lights at W. Layton Ave. and S. 124th St. in Greenfield and put up signs for the Bergstrom Waterfowl Complex in Outagamie County, Shoreland Luterhan High School in Kenosha County, Soldiers Walk Memorial Park in Arcadia and the Town of Lawrence in Brown County.

To bring in some new money, Republicans decided to double the annual fee charged on hybrid vehicles, from $75 to $150. The registration fee for electric vehicles would rise $100, to $175.

The fee for most gas-powered vehicles would remain unchanged at $75 a year.

Revenue from the new fee – about $8 million over two years – would be used to support some of the $402 million in borrowing over the next two years.

The GOP plan leaves a gap between how much the state will take in and the cost of the projects the Department of Transportation hopes to build. That means some projects will be delayed, said Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

“It’s not going to add up when factoring in all the costs associated with this program,” he said.

Michael Minkoff, whose family owns wholesale liquor distributor General Beverage, said that the uncertainty over the highway construction had led his business to delay expansions on Madison’s southwest side that could have led the company to expand its 300-person work force.

“It’s really been a huge cost operationally and a nightmare logistically,” Minkoff said.

Another provision would bar local governments from enforcing ordinances that conflict with the letter or spirit of state laws. Erpenbach said the measure was so broadly written that it would greatly constrain the powers of local officials.

“I don’t know why we have city councils anymore,” he said. “Don’t know why we need county boards. Don’t know why we need town boards.”

The GOP proposal would also beef up the powers of the state Transportation Projects Commission so it could independently review the work of the Department of Transportation.