It took months of debate for Wisconsin legislators to reach a compromise on transportation funding in order to pass the 2017-2019 budget.
But lawmakers knew that wasn’t a long-term solution to the state’s road woes.
“Everywhere I go in the state, people are upset about it and they want something done,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.
On WKOW-TV’s political talk show “Capital City Sunday,” Thompson argued that raising the state's gas tax, registration fees, or both, like other Midwestern states have done, is the necessary first step to solve Wisconsin’s long-term transportation problems. Without action, the state won’t have the chance to take advantage of President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan, he said.
Thompson’s organization, the Transportation Development Association, has made no secret of their desire for action, launching a “Just Fix it Wisconsin” campaign in 2015.
“Like other states, Wisconsin has been grappling for more than a decade with transportation revenue insufficient to meet state and local needs. The issue has been studied. Reports have been issued, and recommendations have been put forth. However, no progress has been made toward a long-term funding solution, while Wisconsin falls further behind,” the TDA website reads.
Residents of the Badger State aren’t imagining those potholes, the TDA says. US News & World Report rates Wisconsin road quality as 44th in the nation, and Wisconsin is “by far the worst in the Midwest by pretty much every metric,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that access to a highway is a top reason that corporations choose a site. An Area Development 2016 survey backs this up, showing “highway accessibility” as the top factor for site selection, followed by the availability of skilled labor and labor costs. Thompson added the agreement to widen I-94 south of Milwaukee was a “linchpin” in Foxconn’s site selection process.
The TDA believes the state needs to spend more money on transportation, but in the latest budget, the State Highway Rehabilitation program took an almost $80 million hit as compared to the last budget. According to a document released by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau in February, that same fund will take another hit of $70 to $90 million, as those funds are diverted to Racine County for Foxconn construction.
“That is significant, there's no question about it,” Thompson said.
While Trump has proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, the plan would relegate the “heavy lifting” to the states, Thompson said. State and local agencies would be responsible for 80 percent of funding projects, with the federal government picking up the tab for the last 20 percent.
Trump’s plan would “incentive states to do exactly what we’ve been unable or unwilling to do in the last several years, which is raise their own money.”
To get back on track, Wisconsin should do what other Midwestern states like Iowa, Indiana and Michigan have done, he said: using the immediate systems already in place, raise the gas tax and/or registration fees.
Just last week on “Capital City Sunday,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said raising the the gas tax by a dime or a nickel wasn’t going to solve the problem, pointing to tolls as a more practical solution.
Thompson said a slight tax increase alone won’t solve the state’s transportation woes, but it’s a good place to start.
“To say that our problems are so great that we should do nothing until we can toll is probably at minimum six years away, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said.
Walker has said he’s open to raising the gas tax, as long as Wisconsin taxpayers get relief somewhere else.
But more than just revenue, Thompson said, Wisconsin needs a plan to fix transportation funding going forward.
He noted the Department of Transportation came up with a plan in 2016 that would finish southeastern interstates over 15 years, which he said would “at least set up a scenario people where could get their head around how we would do this.”