6/4/2016, Janesville Gazette – “The need for improvements has never been more obvious. While the human toll of this delay is difficult to project, it is safe to say that dozens of accidents could be prevented by completing the project on schedule.”
—Dan Cunningham, Forward Janesville, September 2015
We’ve been down this road before. Unfortunately, it’s no pleasure drive.
Absent more money in the state’s transportation budget, motorists can expect yet another delay, perhaps two extra years, in the Interstate 90/39 expansion.
Mark Gottlieb, Gov. Scott Walker’s transportation secretary, signaled that prospect May 25 in Madison. At a roundtable the next day, the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin discussed ramifications with business leaders in Janesville.
Sure, this advocacy group lobbies for the construction industry, but its statewide “Just Fix It” campaign resonates.
Already, a one-year delay from fallout of the current biennial budget means those driving the freeway from Beloit to Madison will endure construction signs, orange barrels and detours at least until 2022.
Instead of swallowing a tough but logical plan of raising revenues, as Gottlieb-led task forces have twice recommended, Walker vowed to veto higher gas taxes or registration fees. So in this budget, lawmakers borrowed more to fund roadwork. Transportation debt service has doubled in just 10 years. That isn’t sustainable, and interest payments don’t buy a shovelful of asphalt.
On Thursday, Walker told reporters he wouldn’t accept higher taxes or fees to fund roadwork without equal cuts elsewhere in the state budget. That came a day after Gottlieb told the Wisconsin State Journal his budget request, unlike the last one that sought $750 million in new taxes and fees, would include no major revenue increases.
Meanwhile, a 2015 federal report rated 71 percent of Wisconsin roads poor or mediocre, third-worst nationwide. Without adequate state dollars, counties and municipalities watch roads crumble and drivers steer into repair shops more often to fix shocks, axles and tires.
What do predictions of another delay in the Interstate project tell companies that depend on moving products and services swiftly?
What do delays tell prospective developers whose projects may hinge on the current freeway schedule? This concern is acute in Rock County, just gaining traction after the Great Recession and the loss of Janesville’s General Motors plant.
What do they tell thousands of commuters who depend on free-flowing traffic to reach work on time each morning and get home safely each evening?
What do they tell taxpayers? With construction costs rising 5 percent annually, each year’s delay costs tens of millions more.
What do they tell crash victims? More than 300 collisions occurred on I-90/39 last year in Rock County alone. The human carnage from another delay is hard to calculate. But last June, a semitrailer truck crossed the median on Janesville’s south side and struck a pickup, killing the driver. The 18 miles of median barriers to be erected include that spot and might have prevented that tragedy.
What do they tell the many Illinois residents who might stay home more often to avoid bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic jams rather than pump tourism dollars into Wisconsin?
What, Dear Governor, would another delay suggest to those you’ve heard you proclaim “Wisconsin is open for business”? Wisconsin sends a terrible message when six freeway lanes in Illinois bottleneck to four at the state line.
Neighboring Michigan and Iowa raised gas taxes in recent years. With gas prices still low, this would be a good time to boost Wisconsin’s, as well.
Sure, Republican leaders want to see results of an audit that might show how Gottlieb’s department could boost efficiencies. That makes sense but won’t fill this Volkswagen-sized funding pothole.
Gas tax revenue has dipped as cars become more efficient. Raising gas taxes enough to shore up a funding shortfall this large would stun drivers. Instead, it will take a mix of gas taxes, registration fees and perhaps even a tax on mileage driven and enactment of some tolls.
Time is wasting. Borrowing more or ignoring the problem won’t solve it. Voters should quiz lawmakers seeking re-election this fall about just how they would plug this funding gap and ensure that the I-90/39 project stays on schedule.
Note: This item also ran in the Portage Daily News and the Baraboo News Republic.