Longtime Milwaukee columnist and editor Bruce Murphy asked a provocative question the other day: Are Wisconsin Republicans scared of the trucking industry?
He's been wondering, he said in his "Murphy's Law" column in "Urban Milwaukee," why former Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues in the Legislature continually refused these past several years to consider raising user fees on large trucks despite the crisis facing the state Department of Transportation's finances.
And now that the current governor, Tony Evers — hoping to raise $36 million to help bolster the transportation budget — has proposed a 27 percent increase in registration and title fees for big trucks, the Republican majority in the Legislature has been mostly silent on the issue.
Even Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, who two years ago proposed increasing truck fees only to be thwarted by the state Senate, hasn't said anything about Evers' plan.
The only one to speak out has been Sen. Tom Tiffany, the anti-environmentalist from Minocqua who, at a recent budget meeting, asked DOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson — who is pushing the increase in fees — "Why are you guys hammering trucks?"
The big trucking industry, after all, has been a major contributor to Republican politicians here in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign pointed out, for instance, that Walker himself garnered more than $700,000 in contributions from the industry between his election in 2010 and the end of 2016.
Tiffany himself, Murphy pointed out in his column, received $9,700 between January 2012 and July 2018.
As readers of this column know, big trucks have also been a huge contributor to the deterioration of our highways. For years, I've been calling for trucking fees that more accurately reflect the amount of damage they cause. Those who study the phenomenon estimate that an 80,000-pound, 18-wheeler semi does as much damage to pavement as do 9,600 cars.
And that's ignoring the fact that trucks have virtually taken over parts of the interstates as trucking volume has increased exponentially since the national highway system was built. In many places it's become a volatile mix of and big trucks and little cars vying for space.
Existing truck fees, both in Wisconsin and in most states, barely cover 35 percent of the damage they cause, according to the American Automobile Association and the Federal Highway Administration.
Yet the trucking industry lobby has been successful in killing state and federal legislation that would require these heavy loads to pay a fair share. Remarkably, while there is little dispute over the damage trucks inflict on the highway system, it continues to push for raising the weight limits and length restrictions on big semis.
Not only that, it has been as successful at loosening restrictions on where big trucks can travel.
Quite noticeably, semis have become the common delivery vehicle to taverns, restaurants and grocery stores. Where once, smaller dual-axle trucks made deliveries, semis now bring beer, soda and food to merchants. One has to wonder how much damage is being inflicted on local streets as a result.
The nation's trucking giants insist that to raise fees on their trucks will lead to big increases in transportation costs that, in the end, will be borne by the consumer in higher prices for everything from groceries to products from the hardware store, and everything in between.
But aren't taxpayers already helping subsidize the industry by having to build and rebuild highways and bridges before their time?
In this age of troubled transportation budgets, it's time for politicians to stop being afraid of losing lucrative campaign donations and require trucks to pay their fair share.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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