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Plenty of Ideas on How to Handle Wisconsin's Transportation Budget Shortfall

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Jimmy Emerson, Flickr
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Wisconsin may have to plug a $700 million shortfall in its next transportation budget.

While Secretary Mark Gottlieb crafts his spending plan for the next biennium, people are tossing around all sorts of ideas for closing the gap. They range from putting up toll booths to scrapping highway expansions.

State officials attribute the shortfall in Wisconsin’s transportation budget to shrinking collections from the gas tax. People are driving fewer miles and, in more fuel efficient vehicles.

And, the state has not increased its gas tax since 2006. It remains at 30.9 cents per gallon.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says one way to help plug the hole, is to move certain divisions out of the transportation department. Its budget pays for more than roadways.

“Transit, which is funded out of the transportation fund. I think it should be funded out of the general fund just like we proposed the last time," Vos says. "I think if you look at the state patrol, that is a law enforcement function and it’s paid for by the gas tax. I don’t know why that would be. We don’t fund any other police department in the state by the gas tax."

Vos says his favorite option for generating more revenue remains toll roads. He calls them a reasonable user fee. Vos proposed the idea in the last legislative session but it went nowhere. Yet, he’s encouraged by a Marquette Law School Poll from earlier this year. It showed people favoring toll roads over other options, as a new revenue stream.

Democratic Assemblyman Daniel Riemer takes a different approach. He says the best way to topple the transportation deficit is to hold down spending on freeway projects. For example, Reimer thinks plans to rebuild a three-mile stretch of I-94 near Miller Park are unnecessary.

“I believe hundreds of millions of dollars can be shaved from these projects that end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars more than they need to,” Riemer says. "If there’s a way to reduce spending, reduce the size of government so we can focus on what’s most important in the transportation budget, finishing local roads, filling potholes, let’s do that instead."

Riemer serves on the Assembly Transportation committee. The lawmakers and governor seated in January, will review the budget Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb is preparing.

One group that hopes to be part of the discussion is called, 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. Steve Hiniker is executive director. He expects it to take arm-twisting to convince some lawmakers to rein in spending on big highway projects.

“The more the public looks into it and the more the public understands that we’re expanding highways that really can’t be shown to have a need for expansion, then I think there will be more pressure to say stop spending all of this money on highways and let’s live within our means,” Hiniker says.

Hiniker also thinks plans to rebuild I-94 near Miller Park are a waste of money. The DOT held public meetings on the subject in summer and should publicize its findings before the year ends.

Another person who wants to have a voice in how Wisconsin addresses its transportation deficit is Pat Goss. He’s executive director of the Wisconsin Road Builders Association. Goss calls the idea to cut or delay big projects, short-sighted. He says state and federal studies have concluded that upgrades are necessary.

“One project that people have been talking about cutting is from Beloit to Madison, the reconstruction of I-90,” Goss says. "Just last week, Secretary Fox from the U.S. Department of Transportation was in Wisconsin, hailing that project as a vital, important project not only from a safety perspective but from economic development along that corridor."

The politics of transportation will also make an appearance on ballots in Wisconsin November 4. Voters will decide whether the state adopts a new constitutional amendment. It would require Wisconsin to spend all the money it collects in transportation fees – such as the gas tax, on DOT projects, only. In the past, state leaders sometimes used the revenue for other purposes.

Amendment supporters want to end what they call ‘raids’ on the transportation fund. Opponents say politicians might then raid other funds, such as, the pot for education.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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