The projected deterioration of Wisconsin’s highway system may accelerate under a transportation-funding plan adopted Tuesday by the Legislature’s budget panel, according to data released last year by the state Department of Transportation.
The Legislature broke a months-long impasse this week when the Joint Finance Committee passed a new two-year budget for 2017-19. That included a funding plan for transportation, the most contentious area of this budget.
The plan cuts funding by $79 million for the state highway rehabilitation program compared to the previous two-year budget, which ran from 2015 to 2017.
Unlike other programs that fund huge highway expansions or new bridges, the rehabilitation program pays to resurface and rebuild existing highways. It is the bread and butter of the state’s highway-spending blueprint and gets, by far, its largest share of funding.
A 2016 solvency report conducted by DOT found the number of highway miles rated poor or worse would nearly double in the next 10 years if state funding for the rehabilitation program stayed at 2015-17 levels. The program got about $1.7 billion in that biennium.
It gets about $1.62 billion for the next two years under a motion approved by the finance committee Tuesday.
That would be the lowest funding level for the program since the 2011-13 biennium, should the plan become law. The full Assembly and Senate are poised to vote on the plan next.
A DOT spokesman, Michael Pyritz, declined comment, saying the department doesn’t comment on proposed budgets until they become law.
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Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the committee’s co-chairman, acknowledged in a statement that “this is not the transportation budget the Assembly was hoping for.”
“We want to keep improving our roads, but we also need to live within our means and the resources we have,” Nygren said.
Assembly Republicans pushed for more revenue for transportation in this budget. But their efforts were largely thwarted by Gov. Scott Walker, who opposed tax and fee increases, and by some Senate Republicans. The state transportation fund is expected to see a relatively small amount of new money from a proposed fee, included in the budget, on electric and hybrid vehicles.
Lower bids expected
Walker recommended about $1.7 billion for the rehabilitation program. Yet Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the lower funding level is justified because the department has been building roads more cheaply, due to bids coming in lower than projected and a lower construction cost index.
“This will allow the state to complete the same projects anticipated under the governor’s recommendations, but at a lower cost largely due to competitive bids and lower fuel prices,” Evenson said in a statement.
Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, which advocates for more state spending for roads, said the DOT’s own data make clear what the budget’s impact will be.
“It does mean that the condition of state highways is going to worsen,” Thompson said.
The 2016 DOT study found the number of “system miles rated in poor and below condition will increase by 93 percent” by fiscal year 2027 if funding for the rehabilitation program stays at 2015-17 levels. It also found “the number of miles rated at fair and above (condition) will decrease by 25 percent” in the same span.
Former Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, who led the department while the study was conducted, warned of the current trajectory of the state’s road conditions in December testimony to lawmakers. He said DOT data show the share of state highways in poor condition would double during the next decade without an infusion of new revenue for highway work.
Gottlieb left DOT in January and was replaced by the current secretary, Dave Ross