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Does Wisconsin Really Need More Roadways?

Jan. 30, 2013
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Is Wisconsin is planning to expand too much roadway in the coming years, given the state’s slow population growth and transportation trends? A report by the public interest WISPIRG Foundation answers an emphatic “yes” and contends that the money saved could be better utilized.

Although Wisconsin’s population is growing at about the national average, and the average Wisconsinite drove 500 fewer miles in 2010 than in 2004, the state is devoting a higher percentage of its transportation budget to roadway expansion than 39 other states.

“We have modest population growth and decreasing per capita vehicle miles traveled, yet we’re spending extravagantly on new highway projects and lane miles,” said WISPIRG Director Bruce Speight.

But will Wisconsin need increased road capacity in the long term?

Speight argues that it’s unnecessary and wasteful since younger and older people are more likely to opt for public transit when available, as well as walking and biking.

Speight recommended reallocating funds from big-budget highway projects and roadway expansion to the repair and maintanance of our existing roads.

The Republican-led Legislature cut funding for local road repairs in the current budget, despite real needs across the state.

According to 2008 data in WISPIRG’s report, 43% of Wisconsin’s roads are rated “less than good” and a 2010 study found that 1,142 structurally deficient bridges in the state needed to be repaired.

Speight also called for increased state funding for public transit systems to prevent more service cuts and fare hikes. The current budget slashed transit funding 10%, putting the squeeze on local bus systems around the state.  

“We have limited transportation resources and we should spend them wisely,” Speight said. “Certainly repairing our existing infrastructure and increasing investment in roads that are being used more seems wise.”

WISPIRG’s report is based on an analysis of states’ transportation spending plans and priorities by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.


Paying for Road Building a Challenge

WISPIRG released its analysis shortly after the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission—an advisory committee appointed by Gov. Scott Walker and legislators, and made up of those connected to road building and construction as well as former elected officials—released its review of Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s budget and priorities.

The commission found that the state will have to raise revenues merely to maintain the status quo, since the gas tax and other funds won’t keep up with inflation and the department’s needs.

Like WISPIRG’s analysis, this report also found that personal and commercial travel has declined in recent years, and that older and younger individuals are more likely to favor public transit. It also noted that more fuel-efficient vehicles have led to less gas consumption, and therefore less gas tax collected. The state’s tax on gas is 32.9 cents per gallon, regardless of the cost of gas, of which 30.9 cents goes to the transportation fund.

Despite these trends, the commission’s report didn’t question the state’s spending priorities, instead calling for more revenues to cover freeway mega-projects, infrastructure repair and expansion, and public transit. It recommended increasing the gas tax and mileage-based registration fees, raising the cost of a driver’s license and annual registration fees for commercial vehicles, and implementing a sales tax on the trade-in value of a vehicle. It called on legislators to support a constitutional amendment that would prevent the transportation fund from being used for other state obligations. It also supported reviving regional transit authorities (RTAs) and allowing them to raise sales taxes.

The estimated cost to pay for the recommendations is $120 annually for an average Wisconsin driver.

The report was released the same week that Republican legislators had proposed a more than $300 million tax cut over the next biennium, a roughly $100 annual income tax cut for an average Wisconsin family.

Former Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz—one of two “token liberals” (as he put it) on the commission among the road builders—said he supports the overall report, since it calls for increased funding for transit, bike and pedestrian programs and other improvements. But he acknowledged that “there’s too much road building” in the state.

Cieslewicz said he was concerned about funding the DOT’s projects, because tea party Republicans won’t vote for a tax increase, Republican leaders have promised an income tax cut to wipe out a projected general fund surplus, and the transportation fund won’t cover projected costs. Cieslewicz warned that Republicans may dip into the general fund to pay for transportation, which would jeopardize funding for public education and other state services.

“If we’ve got to tussle with the road builders but we can build a firewall between the transportation fund and the general fund, then we just have to tussle with the road builders over funding for roads versus transit versus ped and bike,” Cieslewicz said. “Then we can sort of limit the fight. But if you break down that wall, then we have a fight with the road builders over funding for the UW [system] and education and everything.”

The commission also affirmed the DOT’s efforts to prioritize projects but WISPIRG’s Speight questioned some of the DOT’s big-budget priorities. In a 2011 report, WISPIRG identified four “highly questionable” highway expansion projects: the $125 million Highway 38 widening project through rural Racine, a mere four miles east of I-94; the $715 million to $1.5 billion I-90 widening south of Madison; the $125 million Highway 15 widening project in Outagamie County; and the $390 million Tri-County freeway widening in Winnebago and Calumet counties.

 “There’s no evidence to suggest that we’re actually being efficient and thorough and only investing in what we need,” Speight said. “Instead we come up with a wish list for the highway lobby.”


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