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State Lawmakers Grapple With Huge Transportation Deficit

Wisconsin's State Capitol
Ann Althouse, Flickr

One of the big budget items coming before the Legislature’s Joint Finance committee Tuesday will be transportation.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed spending plan for the next two years figured the transportation budget would end up $12 million in the black. The latest estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows the state’s transportation fund headed for a deficit by mid-2015 of $63 million.

The fund pays for highway projects and gets most of its money from vehicle registration fees and the gas tax. However, gas tax revenue is expected to drop sharply both in Wisconsin and across the country, because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars and traveling less, due to high fuel prices.

Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee serves on the Joint Finance committee and says for the most part, he expected the news.

“I was surprised at the size of the gap but I wasn’t surprised that there was a gap. We’ve known for some time that the current way that we fund roads in Wisconsin is not keeping up with the times and we are running a deficit,” Richards says.

Richards says he’s disappointed GOP leaders have ignored recommendations from a bipartisan task force. Its proposed solutions include raising the gas tax by five cents per gallon and creating a new vehicle registration fee based on miles driven.

Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield says certain options are out of the question, including borrowing to close the gap.

“This budget already has more borrowing in it for transportation.  There’s over $1 billion in new transportation bonding and I’m very uncomfortable with that and we need to find a way to reduce that bonding. Also off the table is the gas tax. There will be no increase in the gas tax. It is absolutely not a possibility,” Kooyenga says.

Kooyenga says the most viable option is for state leaders to delay certain road projects. Yet, fellow GOP Assemblyman Jeff Stone of Greendale says some construction must continue.

“Right now we’re in the midst of the Zoo Interchange reconstruction. The Zoo Interchange is the most congested point in the state, so that project creates giant disruptions to our transportation system. Because of its proximity to Milwaukee and to the economic area here, I would be very concerned about having that project slowed or delayed,” Stone says.

Stone says legislators would have to identify smaller projects for deferral. Another possibility would be taking money from the state’s general fund, but Stone foresees lawmakers taking the heat for a transfer.

“In the past we’ve really said transportation is a segregated fund and we’ve tried to work within the revenues both from the registration fee and the gasoline tax. You haven’t often seen those transfers from the general fund into transportation, but it is an option. There’s a lot of pressure on general fund spending across the board right now,” Stone says.

The Legislature would face a hornet’s nest of criticism, if it moved money from education and health care to highways, according to Democrat Jon Richards. Another idea floated for raising money for road improvements is toll booths. However, that proposal has not gained much traction among legislators.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.