9/16/2016, La Crosse Tribune – While Gov. Scott Walker traveled the state Thursday touting the increase in state funding for local transportation in his proposed budget, county officials and state lawmakers, including some from his own party, took a dim view of the plan he unveiled this week.

The General Transportation Aid Program portion of the budget includes an 8 percent increase for counties and a 4.7 percent increase for municipalities. If the transportation aid funding formula remains the same, the budget would give La Crosse County an additional $127,000 during the biennium.

“I really don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it is not a long-term solution to a problem that has been plaguing the whole state for many, many years,” La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson said. “It’s just taking the same pie and cutting it up differently.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a prepared statement the proposed transportation spending plan ignores transportation needs and bipartisan calls for a “sustainable transportation revenue source.” Meanwhile, four Republican Assembly leaders issued a statement criticizing Walker’s proposal. “It is a political solution, not a real solution,” the statement said.

The proposed 2017-19 state transportation budget delays some major highway projects in other parts of the state, cutting $447 million from state highway programs while increasing state spending for road maintenance by $70 million and offering $65 million more for local governments. Walker’s budget proposal cuts overall transportation spending from $6.8 billion this biennium to $6.5 billion for 2017-19.

Walker’s plan calls for borrowing $500 million for transportation spending, down from the $1.3 billion he proposed in the last biennium and $350 million less than the 2015-17 bonding eventually approved by the Legislature.

According to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state needs $939 million more just to pay for projects that already have been approved.

In La Crosse County Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain’s view, an increase in local transportation funding is a step in the right direction, but Walker’s proposed budget is a tiny step. “I’m not complaining at all about increases. It’s been going the other way for years, so seeing an increase is good,” Chamberlain said. “The magnitude of that increase does not compare well with the magnitude of the need.”

Getting an additional $127,000 in state road funding over two years, he said, won’t go very far considering the county has an $89 million “to-do list” when it comes to county roads. “Those are the needs that are identified today,” Chamberlain said. “The needs include failing pavements, bridges in need of replacement, resurfacing and stormwater issues.”

Towns, villages and cities are in the same boat and the statewide organizations representing them have joined with the Wisconsin Counties Association in supporting the Just Fix It campaign spearheaded by the Transportation Development Association. Craig Thompson, the TDA’s executive director, called Walker’s budget “short-sighted and troubling.”

“It does not provide a coherent plan or vision for the state. It would provide, for the next two years, needed investment at the local level, but at the expense of important economic corridors,” Thompson said in a press release. “Crucial safety improvements called for by WisDOT on some of the busiest stretches of interstate in Wisconsin would not proceed. The question is: If we are not going to rebuild 60-year-old segments of the interstate system now, when are we?”

The TDA is ramping up pressure going into the fall elections, sponsoring a series of Turnout for Transportation meetings on Sept. 29, with meetings planned in 71 counties at which county and municipal officials, business owners and citizens are being urged to weigh in on how important it is to fix the road system – and the road funding system.

La Crosse County’s Turnout for Transportation meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. at the county highway shop, at 301 Carlson Road, across Hwy. 16 from Veterans Memorial Park near West Salem.

Johnson emphasized that bringing the state’s roads up to snuff is something that should be viewed as an important issue for the business community. “Safe roads matter to economic development on a very foundational level and this budget does nothing to acknowledge that,” she said. “At what point will we as a state take a serious long-term look at state transportation needs?”

County budget impact

The reaction from Assembly GOP leaders is an indication that the final transportation funding plan could look different from Walker’s vision, but that won’t be decided until next spring. Meanwhile, members of the La Crosse County Board are getting ready to consider a highway spending plan of their own for 2017.

La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley has given county board members a preliminary budget that calls for a 2.9 percent overall increase in the property tax levy, which he projected will result in a tax rate of $3.89 per $1,000 of equalized property value, the same as the 2016 rate.

O’Malley’s preliminary budget includes $13.1 million for the highway department, up a little bit more than $100,000. But in October, he will present board members with an array of other options to increase highway funding including a “pay-as-you-go” approach that replaces long-term bonding with short-term borrowing.

The state restricts growth in the county’s general fund spending, but there is no cap on spending to pay off debt. O’Malley’s preliminary budget presentation included a scenario that would have the county borrowing $5 million for road projects (more than double what it was this year) and paying those loans off in the same year at a lower interest rate than what is carried by bonds.

To make that happen, however, the county would need to increase the tax levy by 15 to 16 percent, O’Malley said.

When county board members discuss the budget next month, O’Malley said he will have a range of options for them to consider.

“We are eager to hear more details on what those options are,” Johnson said. “We still face significant decisions about how we pay for safe roads in La Crosse County.”