11/12/2015, Racine Journal Times – Republican leaders of the Legislature’s budget panel, after green-lighting borrowing to fund highway projects the next two years, say they’re serious about finding a long-term funding fix for roads in the next state budget.
It’s a problem for which Wisconsin lawmakers have spent at least five years seeking a solution. State and federal fuel-tax revenues have stagnated and road-building costs have soared, causing state officials to turn to borrowing and delaying projects.
The result, many lawmakers and advocates agree, is a looming crisis for Wisconsin’s roads.
“We can’t kick the can down the road any longer,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chairwoman of the committee. “I know we’ve said that before – but we can’t.”
Darling and the committee’s co-chairman, Rep. John Nygren, said lawmakers must consider a controversial fix: increasing the state’s 30.9-cent-per-gallon gas tax.
“We might need to revisit where ours is at,” Nygren said, noting that neighboring states Michigan and Iowa recently increased their gas tax rate.
“Many people look at a gas tax as a user fee. I think we should have all the options on the table,” said Darling, R-River Hills.
Nygren, in a column released to media outlets Monday, also signaled that he favors charging tolls to raise money for roads.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is studying whether tolling is feasible on interstate highways. But it would require federal approval that’s far from a sure thing.
Nygren, R-Marinette, also told the State Journal that increasing vehicle registration fees — a step favored by Assembly Republicans during a budget stalemate earlier this year but rejected by Senate Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker — should be an option.
Increasing taxes or fees, especially the gas tax, could bring a backlash. Fiscal conservatives in the Legislature and in the party’s grass roots are likely to balk.
What role Walker would play in the process is unclear. Walker has said he won’t increase gas taxes or registration fees without a corresponding decrease in other taxes and fees — a stance that his spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, reiterated this week.
“I hope,” Darling said of Walker, “that he would be part of the solution.”
‘At some point you have to be responsible’
Democratic lawmakers remain skeptical that Republicans are serious about addressing the state’s transportation funding woes.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, a member of the budget panel, watched as lawmakers in 2011 authorized a commission to examine options for transportation funding. The commission released its findings in 2013, but they’ve largely been ignored.
For three straight budget cycles, Hintz said the GOP-controlled Legislature talked about the problem but failed to act.
“We keep moving the goal posts,” Hintz said. “At some point you have to be responsible, and that means not borrowing.”
Hintz said he believes raising the gas tax is the fairest option.
Hintz was one of four Democrats on the joint finance panel who, in what they described as a reluctant but necessary move, joined Assembly Republicans last week to pass the $350 million road borrowing measure. The state budget passed in July provided $500 million in road bonding and authorized the additional $350 million, with final approval of the latter contingent on a vote by the committee.
Red flags on Wisconsin’s road-funding picture have continued to surface. Groups such as the Transportation Development Association, Local Government Institute of Wisconsin and others have underscored the problem.
A recent U.S. Department of Transportation report found 71 percent of Wisconsin’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition — the third-largest percentage of any state.
A spate of major highway expansion projects, including part of Verona Road in the Madison area and Interstate 39/90 from the Madison area to Illinois, have faced delays.
The borrowing approved by the Joint Finance Committee last week will reduce those delays from two years to one. But DOT projections say returning the projects — all of which are set to remain under construction at least through 2020 — to their original timelines would require increasing funding by nearly $200 million for major highway projects alone in the next two-year budget.
The funding crunch is due to a combination of stagnating fuel-tax revenues, soaring construction costs for roads and continuing congressional gridlock on federal road funding.
The state’s transportation fund, which finances most road spending, is filled by state funds — fuel-tax revenues and vehicle registration fees — as well as federal funds and bonds.
In 2006, lawmakers and the governor ended the practice of indexing the state fuel tax for inflation. Since then, fuel tax revenues have remained roughly flat at about $1 billion a year.
Republicans: All options should be considered
Unlike her Assembly counterpart, Darling isn’t saying which road funding options she favors.
“I want to hear what our constituents say,” Darling said. “I think it’d be very premature to put anything on the table — or take anything off.”
Darling and fellow Senate Republicans on the budget panel voted against the additional borrowing last week, saying it’s irresponsible to put more road projects on the state’s credit card.
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, is one of the GOP senators who has objected to additional road borrowing. Stroebel also doesn’t appear sold on the need for new road funding, at least until he’s convinced the current funds are being spent wisely.
“We need to be ensuring every possible efficiency is considered and implemented before seeking additional borrowing or worse, implementing new taxes,” Stroebel wrote last week.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said results of a pending state audit of the DOT may show how the department can be more efficient.
Vos told the State Journal this week that he’s open to increasing vehicle registration fees. He said increasing the gas tax “is not at the top of my list” but, when pressed, declined to rule it out.
Vos said last year that he favors toll roads. Walker has said he isn’t a fan of that approach but hasn’t ruled it out.
Toll roads — aside from facing federal hurdles that make them an unlikely solution in the short term — would be a big break from precedent in Wisconsin, a state with an historical aversion to them. Nygren argues tolls would help finance Wisconsin’s roads with dollars from out-of-state motorists.
The contract for the state toll road study has been awarded to HNTB Corp., DOT spokeswoman Patricia Mayers said. She said it’s part of a broader directive in the most recent state budget for the department to investigate how to improve the solvency of the state transportation fund.
Whatever the options lawmakers consider, Nygren said state elected officials will need to step up and offer real solutions.
“I’m sticking my neck out,” Nygren said. “I’m offering to provide the leadership.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to requests for comments.