The Wisconsin Department of Transportation reports that total funding across all state transportation programs has fallen since Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, despite statements Walker has made insisting he has made historic investments.
According to a DOT report on 2018-2019 budget trends released last week, spending has fallen across every road program, including major highway development, local road aid and assistance and southeast Wisconsin freeways, which saw the most dramatic decline.
From fiscal year 2011-2012, funding for major highway development decreased by 31.2 percent, highway improvement funding fell by 23.8 percent and local road funding fell 13.4 percent in constant 2017 dollars. Funding for southeast freeways dropped by 51.1 percent.
Debt service on transportation borrowing has increased 66.9 percent since fiscal year 20121-12, according to the report.
Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg did not directly respond Tuesday afternoon to specific figures in the DOT report, but said: "Since 2011, Wisconsin has invested approximately $24 billion into Wisconsin’s transportation system allowing WisDOT to (contract) for over 2,300 projects to improve 3,892 miles and 2,037 bridges."
The state's entire transportation budget over that time is about $24 billion, or about $7 billion every biennium, which includes funding for numerous programs outside of building and maintaining state roads and highways.
Hasenberg also said the Walker administration has found savings "totaling $246 million over the last two years," allowing it to advance the construction plans for 67 projects throughout the state, including Interstate 39-90 and U.S. Highway 10-441.
The report cited funding levels for individual fiscal years from 2000 to 2019, in both nominal dollar and 2017 dollar figures adjusted for inflation. The biennium percentage decreases express dollars adjusted for inflation.
The latest numbers from Walker's transportation agency are consistent with what nonpartisan legislative analysts, bipartisan commissions and lawmakers from both political parties have said for years: the state is not generating enough money to fix a growing transportation infrastructure problem.
Walker has maintained that he has put $3 billion more into the state's transportation system than his Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle, investing $24 billion over eight years. That statement has been rated "mostly false" by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for failing to consider inflation and for counting the amount of money that was borrowed, then spent on transportation twice, once when the money was first borrowed, and again when payments were made on the debt.
Even with an increase for local roads in Walker's latest budget, the DOT's report shows that the administration has "kicked the can down the road" on a long-term transportation funding solution, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, who has worked on local transportation issues for more than 30 years.
"There's no question, and I said it multiple times ... in relationship to transportation funding at the local level you don't have to look at the reports. It isn't a complicated issue. You just have to be out in the field looking at what's happening," Fedderly said. "The funding at the local level has not kept pace with the demand and needs of the local system by any stretch."
"You don't solve a transportation dilemma that you created over multiple years in one budget cycle ... the whole discussion sums up the failure of the Legislature and the administration to address a long-term sustainable funding source for transportation in Wisconsin," he said.
The report comes as Walker has announced progress on several transportation projects statewide over the last few weeks. On Monday, he applauded the completion of a portion of the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee.
“The Zoo Interchange Core is completed on time and on budget,” Walker said in a statement. “This project is yet another example of our commitment to a safe, smart, and reliable transportation system. This is an investment that serves all of Wisconsin and its completion is important to the continued growth of the region and the state.”
But those who want the state to generate more transportation revenue say Walker's cheers are premature and misleading, noting that the Zoo Interchange project was delayed overall and that other portions of the project remain unfinished, meaning that it will cost more to complete them.
The Zoo Interchange project was started in 2012, originally scheduled to be completed in 2018, according to DOT. The Walker administration has divided the project into three parts: the core, north and south legs.
"There is no such thing as the 'core of the zoo' and 'north leg of the zoo.' It's all one project. It's not done," said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association.
"What is now being called the 'north leg' was all just a part of that original project." The rest of the project could be done by 2023 if the the Legislature and Governor sign off on more funding in the next budget, he said.
Walker's former transportation secretary, Mark Gottlieb, said Tuesday the report shows the the state is failing to adequately invest in transportation and that the administration has "engaged in an irresponsible reliance on borrowed money."
"Debt service has increased 85 percent in the last eight years, to the point where we now spend five dollars on debt service for every three dollars we spend on the maintenance of state highways. These problems will continue to worsen until the current funding crisis is resolved," Gottlieb said in an email.
Gottlieb is the third former Walker secretary to criticize his former boss, alleging that during Gottlieb's six years at the helm of the state's transportation agency, Walker increasingly politicized transportation issues.
Walker's Democratic gubernatorial opponent Tony Evers and other Democrats have also criticized Walker's transportation record. Evers has said he wants all options on the table to raise more money for roads.