Gov. Tony Evers urged his new transportation task force at its first meeting Thursday to find a “nonpartisan” solution to fund the state’s network of roads, bridges and transit.
His pick to lead the state Department of Transportation, Craig Thompson, said solutions could include increasing the gas tax or vehicle registration fee — but likely won’t be limited to highway tolling, an option discussed by GOP lawmakers in the last budget debate.
Evers briefly addressed the task force at its first meeting Thursday morning at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Madison. He told its members the funding problem they’ve been asked to consider is “complex and daunting and highly politicized,” but he’s confident a solution can be found.
“The people of Wisconsin want some answers,” Evers said. “I know there’s a nonpartisan way to solve these problems.”
Evers also told the task force he hopes it addresses making the state’s transportation budget sustainable.
“Sustainability is related to making sure that we have adequate funding,” Evers added.
The task force roster was announced Wednesday, including 34 members from business, transportation, environmental, agricultural, and local and state government backgrounds.
So far it has just one more meeting scheduled next week in La Crosse. Thompson, Evers’ transportation secretary-designee, said the department will take information from the task force and make a recommendation to Evers for his plan for the two-year budget cycle that starts in July. Evers is expected to release his budget in late February or early March.
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Thompson, speaking to reporters before the event, said the state needs more revenue.
“We’re going to see if the majority of the members of this group believe that, and if so, what are the best strategies that we can get the most support for,” Thompson said. “We really want to hear from all of these groups — what their priorities are, how the transportation system is impacting what they do, and what they would like to see moving forward in the budget.”
Transportation funding sharply divided Republican state leaders during negotiations in 2017 on the current state budget, and was the primary cause of a 10-week delay of its passage. Some hard-line conservative GOP lawmakers think the funding issue can be resolved with spending cuts. Some other Republicans and Democrats — including Evers — say they believe more revenue is needed to avoid more borrowing, project delays and deterioration of state infrastructure.
Thompson said he hopes to find recommendations that provide a significant revenue infusion in the coming two-year budget cycle starting. That would exclude highway tolling, preparations for which would take years to begin producing revenue. But Thompson said he wouldn’t rule out tolling being part of a broader solution.
He said increasing the gas tax or vehicle registration fee, the two main funding sources for the state’s transportation fund, “are naturals for us to look at.”
“The governor said everything’s on the table and we believe that,” Thompson said. “We want to hear from these folks and where we could garner the most support to raise the revenue we need to address the transportation system in a state where we have the second-most transportation-dependent economy in the country.”
Evers’ nomination of Thompson, as with other state Cabinet picks, is subject to confirmation by a majority vote of the state Senate. Some GOP senators, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, have expressed concerns about Thompson’s nomination for DOT secretary, citing his role as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association.
Thompson said he had a “great meeting” with Fitzgerald Wednesday but has not been told when the Senate might take up his nomination.