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Our Views: Solution crucial to funding for Wisconsin highway projects

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December 21, 2013

It's great to hear that Gov. Scott Walker has directed Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb to find a way to better pay for roads, bridges and other state infrastructure.

After all, transportation funding is heading into a massive pothole.

Asphalt and other construction costs are growing, while transportation revenues are shrinking. In 2006, lawmakers abolished annual indexing that boosted the gas tax to match inflation. They argued that indexing amounted to raising taxes without a vote. The move eroded gas tax revenues at a time when roads and bridges are crumbling and people are driving less and buying hybrids or other fuel-efficient autos.

Walker didn't solve the funding problem in his first two biennial budgets. Instead, he borrowed more money for highways. That followed the tactics of former Gov. Jim Doyle, who pillaged more than $1 billion from revenues earmarked for transportation and spent the loot on other desires while backfilling with borrowed dollars.

The future is dire. A special state transportation commission has projected the 10-year funding gap at between $3.3 billion and $18.4 billion. The smaller figure couldn't even maintain roads and bridges at current levels.

In January, a commission that Gottlieb chaired found that Wisconsin motorists pay less in gas tax and vehicle registration fees than drivers in neighboring states. It suggested raising the gas tax 5 cents a gallon, boosting driver's license fees and creating a new mileage-based fee. Republican lawmakers, averse to raising taxes, shuddered and shunned such talk.

Republicans, including Sen. Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn, also blanch at talk of tollways, though open-road tolling with I-PASS transponders serves Illinois well. Still, tolls could only be used on the Interstate where new lanes are built and would require federal approval. Those roadblocks might too formidable to steer around.

Meanwhile, Bruce Speight, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, argues the state has been spending tax dollars on transportation projects foolishly. He points to traffic growth projections that haven't matched reality and suggests more people are working from home or using mass transit and bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

He has a point, although the recession slammed the brake on miles driven. Some projects might best be left on the drawing board. For example, Janesville's Highway 11 bypass has seen sparse traffic in a decade of use. Residents were right to convince the state to scuttle a $50 million bypass link between highways 11 and 14 west of Janesville.

That doesn't mean, however, that expanding Interstate 90/39 between Madison and the state line isn't crucial to regional economic development. That freeway is a bottleneck, particularly in weather such as we're experiencing this weekend, and any project delay could create a roadblock to job growth.

Couple that with rebuilding Milwaukee's Zoo Interchange and the other needs around the state, and you can see the funding dilemma. Walker has hinted that the solution might work in tandem with higher sales taxes and elimination of state income taxes.

If the state can convince motorists that it's spending tax dollars wisely and in ways that ease congestion and keep roads in good repair, drivers will more willingly swallow a bitter solution.



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