9/16/2016, Wisconsin State Journal – Gov. Scott Walker edged closer Thursday to a road-funding showdown with fellow Republicans in the next state budget, saying his two-year transportation plan would not raise taxes or fees — at the cost of delaying major road expansions, including the Verona Road project in the Madison area.
Walker’s plan would keep other large highway projects on schedule, including the Interstate 39-90 expansion in Dane and Rock counties.
Walker, while unveiling his administration’s 2017-19 transportation budget request, also drew the lines of an impending battle with his Republican colleagues in the Assembly, where GOP leaders have left the door open to increasing gas taxes or transportation fees, such as vehicle registration fees, in 2017 to resolve the state’s road-funding woes. They have also floated the idea of instituting toll roads.
“My promise to the taxpayers was, I was not going to raise the gas tax or other associated fees without a corresponding reduction,” Walker said. “If people want to make changes to the budget, they need to be mindful of that.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, panned Walker’s proposal, calling it “a political solution, not a real solution.” Vos and other top Assembly Republicans have said new revenue for transportation likely is needed; it likely would come through higher taxes or fees.
“It is more conservative to pay for projects today than it is to borrow the money and make our children pay the price,” Vos said.
Transportation advocates and Democrats also knocked Walker’s proposal as lacking a long-term fix for road funding. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi criticized the proposed Verona Road delay, saying the project “needs to be completed for the safety of motorists and the economic well-being of businesses in Dane County.”
Walker said his transportation plan would minimize borrowing and prioritize safety and maintenance of existing roads. It calls for $500 million in borrowing for the Department of Transportation for the two-year period beginning in July 2017. Walker’s office described that level of borrowing for transportation as the lowest since the 2001-03 budget.
The budget enacted by Walker and lawmakers last year borrowed $850 million for roads. Critics, including some GOP lawmakers, have said the state can’t afford to borrow so heavily again this time.
While some highway expansions are frozen out of Walker’s plan, funding for road maintenance and state transportation aid to local units of government would increase.
First step in debate
Walker’s budget request is the first step in a debate over the state transportation budget that likely will find a prominent place on the legislative agenda for 2017. His announcement came the day before state agencies were due to submit requests for the 2017-19 budget cycle.
Lawmakers will formally start to debate transportation and other areas of the next state budget when they begin the next legislative session early next year.
A statewide transportation advocacy group, the Transportation Development Association, blasted Walker’s plan as “short-sighted and troubling.”
“It would provide, for the next two years, needed investment at the local level, but at the expense of important economic corridors,” said Craig Thompson, director of the association, which includes businesses, labor, local governments and citizen groups.
Walker’s budget request would halt, at least for now, construction on three major highway expansions, including the Verona Road project — one seen as vital to the southwest Madison area, which includes some of Dane County’s fastest-growing business and residential areas.
Work currently underway on the project involves widening the Beltline from two to three lanes each direction.
The project also calls for widening Verona Road from two to three lanes each way from the Beltline to McKee Road, and upgrading part of McKee Road and other roads in the area.
The part of the project that likely would face delays under Walker’s budget is the proposed construction of an interchange at Verona Road and McKee Road, according to DOT spokeswoman Patty Mayers.
Senate could be key
The plan would keep on track two large expansions, including the Interstate 39-90 project, which widens it to three lanes each way from the Illinois state line to the Beltline. The other project that would stay on schedule under Walker’s plan is an expansion of Highway 10-441 in the Fox Valley.
With Walker and Assembly Republicans staking out their positions on road funding, where the state Senate comes down on the issue likely will be pivotal.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, whose district includes the I-94 North-South project, released a statement Thursday criticizing Walker’s proposal.
Two of the Senate’s staunchest fiscal conservatives, Sens. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, released statements praising it. Stroebel repeatedly has said the Department of Transportation must find more savings within its current spending practices.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton, whose district includes Verona, one of the cities most affected by the Verona Road project, said he favors increasing the gas tax.
Other ideas lawmakers have floated include raising registration fees or creating toll roads.
Tolling interstates would not be a short-term fix because it would require federal approval, which is far from certain.
“The governor just simply isn’t being realistic,” Erpenbach said. “You can’t be the kind of pro-jobs governor he claims to be, then put the brakes on something that will create jobs down the road.”