The bad news about Wisconsin’s transportation system last week piled up like a multi-vehicle crash.
On Monday, U.S. News & World Report ranked Wisconsin 49th out of 50 states for the quality of our roads. About 42 percent of Wisconsin’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the national magazine, compared to just 19 percent in neighboring Illinois.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, using Wisconsin’s open records law, uncovered an internal state Department of Transportation memo warning the agency’s new secretary about a “tidal wave” of critical road work that “can’t be delayed forever.” The Republican governor’s plans will lead to more congestion, worse road conditions and decades of delayed projects, the newspaper reported.
On Thursday, Mark Sommerhauser of the State Journal reported that the DOT is scrapping its study of how to expand the busy interstate north of Madison to Wisconsin Dells — despite “significant problems” with traffic congestion as tourists drive to and from this major tourism destination.
And in Saturday’s newspaper, Matthew DeFour of the State Journal reported that Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, wants to borrow more money for roads to get by, rather than increasing the state gas tax or vehicle registration fee to actually pay for what the state is spending.
Fitzgerald’s strategy won’t begin to fix the state’s neglected roads. And his idea to pay off the debt using state income, corporate and sales taxes — rather than relying on user fees from motorists — will leave less state money available for schools, universities, public safety and health programs.
What Wisconsin really needs is leadership on the issue, something Gov. Scott Walker and Fitzgerald aren’t providing. Any hope for a responsible solution lies in the state Assembly, where Republicans understand that road construction costs increase with inflation, and that a sustainable funding source is needed for the good of our state’s economy and jobs.
The reason Wisconsin roads are so bad and getting worse is that user fees haven’t increased in more than a decade.
The average Wisconsin citizen pays more in income taxes over time. Homeowners pay more in property taxes, too, despite the governor’s strong efforts to restrain this most burdensome tax.
But when it comes to paying for roads, Gov. Walker has steered Wisconsin down an increasingly bumpy path. He is refusing to raise the state gas tax or the vehicle registration fee, which haven’t kept up with inflation. In fact, most motorists are paying less gas tax than a decade ago because their vehicles are more fuel efficient and burn less gas.
Walker also has ignored task force recommendations to develop a mileage-based charge, which would reflect the growing popularity of hybrid and battery-powered cars. And he hasn’t embraced open-road tolling, which would bring in more revenue from tourists.
The governor’s endless opposition to minor and reasonable user fees on drivers might be a nifty political talking point as he seeks re-election next year or pursues another run for president. But he’s hurting Wisconsin’s economy and jobs by failing to maintain a solid transportation system.