Tag Archives: Transportation

Go Vote!

It’s election day in Wisconsin. Most importantly, get out and vote for Judge Michael Screnock. Also, vote YES to get rid of the State Treasurer. Then look down the ballot and make choices in your local races.

In my neck of the woods, I encourage you to vote for Monte Schmiegie and Mary Weigand for the West Bend School Board, and vote NO on all four of the referenda for roads in the City of West Bend.

Like many folks, I took advantage of in-person early voting and exercised my franchise last week. If you didn’t, there’s a snow storm schmucking Wisconsin today. It looks like it’s going to roll into the southern third of Wisconsin this afternoon, so get out there and vote this morning. We’re Wisconsinites… we don’t let a little snow keep us away from choosing our government.

 

Dense Fog Advisory in Wisconsin DOT

Perhaps a stiff wind from the East wing of the capitol would clear that fog.

Access to objective data apparently will be even harder to come by when the issue resurfaces in the next legislative session.  Credit for that dubious development goes to Transportation Secretary Dave Ross. Email exchanges with his top deputy suggest that Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WIDOT) no longer will issue two valuable, long-standing reports on transportation revenue, debt, and spending.

One report, “Transportation Budget Trends,” provides a comprehensive historical overview of revenues and expenditures. A second document, “All Funds” and “State Funds”, is a two-page, line-item breakdown of the then-current biennial budget. Issuance of the reports dates at least to the late 1990s.

On February 27 I emailed Deputy Secretary Bob Seitz as follows: “Who should I contact to get a current copy of the attached reports?”

His March 1 response: “The ‘All Funds Report’ looks like it comes out of the biennial budget act. The latest version of that would be the budget act signed in September. The other document looks to be a budget-related piece. Those won’t be out until budget documents start coming out for the next budget process late in the year.”

This was unresponsive. The issuance of neither report is dependent on “the next budget process.”

West Bend asks if it’s time for a tax increase to pay for streets

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

The West Bend Common Council has reached a crossroads and is turning to the public for advice. After almost a decade without a tax increase, the city’s streets are in good condition, but they could be better. Are the taxpayers willing to stomach a tax increase to pay for better streets? That is the subject of four advisory referendums on the April 3 ballot.

Maintaining the city’s streets is a core function of city government. Quality streets are critical to the city’s economy and quality of life. Measuring the quality of streets is also inherently subjective. West Bend has about 134 miles of streets, but nobody drives on all of them. Any citizen’s perception of the quality of the city’s streets is limited to their experiences on the subset of streets they use. If the street I live on is crumbling, then I am more likely to think that the city’s streets are poor.

Many Wisconsin municipalities use the PASER rating system to try to measure the overall quality of the streets. The PASER rating ranges from 1 to 10, with a 10 being a new street. The city evaluates all of the streets every two years. The PASER rating is based on a subjective visual observation of the streets, but it gives us some benchmark against which to gauge the quality of the city’s streets.

West Bend’s average PASER rating was 5.89 in 2011 when the city began increasing spending on street maintenance by about 4 percent every year. In 2017, that rating rose to 6.04. That is considered “good” on the PASER scale and comparable with cities of a similar size. Keep in mind, however, that there is a lot of subjectivity inherent to the PASER rating, so changes of a few decimal points are not necessarily relevant. Also, no study has shown any correlation between a city’s PASER rating and citizen satisfaction — largely because of the perception issue mentioned earlier.

The equation for getting better streets is pretty simple at the local level: spend more, faster. While the city will likely be able to save some money on projects thanks to the repeal of the prevailing wage laws, those savings will have a marginal impact on overall spending at a municipal scale. The question then becomes, do the citizens of West Bend want better streets? If so, how do they want to pay for it? Those are the questions the four referendum questions seek to answer.

Referendum questions 1 and 2 ask if the taxpayers want to increase property taxes by $640,000 or $1.2 million, respectively, to be used for streets. Question 3 asks if the citizens would like to implement a $20 wheel tax to be used exclusively for road designated borrowing.Question 4 asks if the city’s citizens would support an agreement with Washington County to distribute up to 25 percent of the proceeds of the county sales tax to municipalities to pay for roads.

On these four questions, I will be voting, “no,” “heck, no,” “are you kidding me?” and “nope,” respectively.

The first three questions are straightforward. If you want to spend more on the city’s streets, they are asking the amount and method of payment. I do not support raising any taxes to spend more on the streets. Frankly, the city has been doing a good job in maintaining the city’s streets and slowly improving them over time within the confines of the funds available. It has been an impressive display of leadership and good stewardship of the taxpayers’ money for which the city’s leadership and staff deserve commendation. I have confidence in their continued leadership in this regard.

The fourth question is interesting in that a vote on an advisory referendum regarding something the County Board might consider is almost completely meaningless. In fact, the County Board and county administrator have already shot down the idea. In theory, if the county has a sales tax that is collected from all of the citizens in the county, it is not unreasonable for the county to remit some of those proceeds back to the municipalities.

The sales tax in Washington County was originally passed as a temporary tax to fund a few major capital projects. I still cling with childlike belief to the hope that a conservative County Board will one day honor their predecessors’ word to the taxpayers and end the sales tax. The addition of more municipal fingers into the sales tax pie makes the possibility of ending the county sales tax even less likely.

West Bend has been a case study is solid conservative city management for several years. They have kept taxes flat while meeting the city’s priorities and maintaining or improving services. These referendum questions are a sincere query of the citizens to ask if the time has come to raise taxes to improve the city’s streets faster. No, that time has not yet come, but the city’s leaders earned the right to ask. Keep up the good work, West Bend.

#justfixit in Washington County

This is certainly better than the message we’re getting from state lawmakers.

[West Bend, Wisc…] Washington County thinks it can fund all its highway improvements over the next 32 years without an increase in the gas tax or raising other taxes and fees. The plan is simple: make transportation infrastructure a top priority in its budget.

That is the cornerstone of the county’s 2050 Transportation Network Sustainability Plan, which officials are promoting through the #JustFixIt campaign.

Rather than just complain about the amount of  federal or state government funding for local roads, the county is proactively moving forward “to achieve a financially sustainable transportation network for Washington County.”

“Washington County is leading the way to #JustFixIt by putting forth a plan which would 100% fund the maintenance, resurfacing and reconstruction of all county highways for the next three decades,” said County Administrator Joshua Schoemann. “I believe this plan will serve as a model across the State, further demonstrating how setting priorities can result in solutions to maximize the use of every taxpayer dollar we receive and meeting the expectations for essential government services.”

[…]

Washington County wouldn’t be the only county to figure out how to fund road repairs without a tax hike. Marquette County has managed to maintain the best roads in the state through prioritization just within its highway budget. That’s resulted in 99 percent of Marquette’s county highways being in fair or better condition. Incredibly, the county receives almost the smallest amount in state aid of any Wisconsin county.

Transportation Debate Bleeds into 2018

It’s almost like we didn’t debate these things last year and pass a budget.

Allowing open-road tolling on Wisconsin’s interstates is the only viable way to raise state money to match whatever federal funding could be coming for transportation, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told county officials Wednesday.

President Donald Trump last month called on Congress to approve a $1.5 trillion federal infrastructure plan that likely would require states to put up some money to receive the federal funds. Trump’s plan would rely on state and local governments working with private investors to come up with much of the cash.

Republican legislative leaders have long been supportive of tolling in Wisconsin and they reiterated that again Wednesday. Gov. Scott Walker has also been open to tolling and last week said he would consider a gas tax increase to access the federal infrastructure money, if the increase were offset by cuts elsewhere. But Fitzgerald said Wednesday there was not enough support in the Senate to pass a gas tax increase or vehicle registration fee increases.

“The only way that we are going to be able to do this and the only way that makes sense is open road tolling,” Fitzgerald said.

Why does the scramble for “free” federal money always end up in higher taxes and fees for Wisconsinites?

City of West Bend Puts Transportation Advisory Referendum on April Ballot

We knew this was coming, but last night the West Bend Common Council voted to ask the voters through referendum how we want to address our transportation funding moving forward. Here are the four options upon which they settled:

According to the notice of advisory referendum, West Bend officials have planned four questions for the public to consider during the spring election. The first question is:

 “Currently, the city of West Bend invests over $1 million (increasing 4 percent annually) on road and sidewalk maintenance,” the first question reads. “In addition to this annual investment, would you support the Common Council increasing property taxes by approximately $640,000, approximately by 23 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, to apply to borrowing that can be used for roads?”

The second question is a variant of the first but doubles the amount of the tax that officials will impose on residents.

 “Currently, the city of West Bend invests over $1 million (increasing 4 percent annually) on road and sidewalk maintenance. In addition to this annual investment, would you support the Common Council increasing property taxes by approximately $1.2 million, approximately by 46 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, to apply to borrowing that can be used for road.

The third question also asks if residents are willing to pay more, but alters the manner in which it is imposed.

 “Currently, the city of West Bend invests over $1 million (increasing 4 percent annually) on road and sidewalk maintenance,” the third question reads. “In addition to this annual investment, would you support the Common Council implementing a $20 vehicle registration fee (wheel tax) to apply exclusively to road designated borrowing?”

[…]

The final question is meant to address a collaborative initiative with the county.

 “Washington County currently imposes a 0.5 percent sales tax throughout the county and none of these dollars are shared with the local municipalities (e.g. the city of West Bend). Municipalities have recently put forth a proposal to the County for sharing sales tax revenues,” the fourth question states. “Would you support an agreement where the County would distribute up to 25 percent of the revenues with the municipalities (approximately $600,000 for West Bend) to apply to road designated borrowing?”

Based on my conversations with some of the folks involved, I do believe that this is an honest, straight-forward question for the voters and the council intends to follow the public’s lead. There has been increasing frustration and tension on the council regarding transportation. Projects never get done as quickly as anyone would like. There are some who think the time has come to raise taxes and spend more on the roads. There are some who want to stay the course. There are some who are looking for an alternative way – like collaborating with the county for funding. There is an honest impasse and they are using the referendum process to get guidance on how to proceed from the public.

I do wish that they had an option for “stay the course.” I think they figured that no such option was necessary because it is the obvious option for people who vote, but don’t select any of the four options. But it would have been nice to have an affirmative option for “stay the course.” Or an option for “spend less,” but I suppose that was too much to consider.

What do you think?

City of West Bend Considers Transportation Advisory Referendum Tonight

The Washington County Insider has more details.

Oct. 4, 2017 – West Bend, WI – The Long Range Transportation Planning Committee (LRTPC) will make a recommendation to the Common Council tonight for an advisory referendum to gauge whether neighbors want city leaders to spend more on road repair.

In 2015 the city put together the LRTC to specifically look at issues dealing with road maintenance and repair. Aldermen said roads were the No. 1 complaint of taxpayers.

In September 2015 the city posted a Transportation Survey

Dist. 5 alderman Rich Kasten, who heads up the LRTPC, said the survey was “not to advocate for any potential solution but garner true and valuable feedback on the appetite of the citizens when it comes to road maintenance.”

Some of the options to fund road repair are below:

  1. Continue to spend 4 percent more per year on road maintenance
  2. Enact a wheel tax of $20 per registered passenger vehicle / car or light truck. That could generate about $600,000 annually to be spent on roads.
  3. Increase property taxes specifically for road projects.

[…]

Tonight’s Common Council meeting gets underway at 6:30 p.m. at West Bend City Hall, 1115 S. Main Street.

State Legislators Near Budget Deal

Meh.

Leaders of the state Legislature’s budget-writing committee said Tuesday they have a plan to resolve the most contentious area of the state’s overdue budget: how to fund Wisconsin’s roads and bridges.

The plan slightly trims Gov. Scott Walker’s road-borrowing blueprint, imposes a new fee on electric and hybrid vehicles and moves the state closer to collecting highway tolls, according to the committee’s co-chairpersons, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling.

The great missed opportunity of this budget was to make dramatic reforms in the size and scope of government. The problem with the transportation budget is that Wisconsin still spends way too much – much more per mile than comparable states – and legislators refuse to make serious reforms in the way the state goes about building and maintaining our transportation infrastructure. Instead of tackling the fundamental problems while Republicans control the entire law-making apparatus of state government, they have chosen to nibble around the edges and kick the can a little further down the road.

As for the framework of a deal itself, the biggest item, symbolically if not fiscally, is the imposition of a new tax on electric and hybrid vehicles. While I abhor the notion of a new tax to just prop up bloated spending, this tax is conceptually palpable.

As I said, the big issue is the spending, but a secondary issue is that the funding mechanisms for transportation isn’t as applicable as it once was. Wisconsin funds transportation by the vehicle registration fees and by the tax on gas. The gas tax was intended as a proxy for usage. In general, the more gas one buys, the more they are driving, the more they are using the roads, the more they are paying for the roads. But electric cars (and hybrids to a lesser extent) subvert that proxy.

If we want to stick to the notion that people who use the roads more should pay more for them, and we don’t want toll roads, then we need to find a way to impose more taxes on those who use the roads but don’t buy gas.

I was struck by a quote in a biography of Robert Morris that I’m finishing up. In countering David Howell’s opposition to the Impost Law in his native Rhode Island, Morris said:

“As all taxes are unpleasant, some state will be found to oppose any which can be devised, on quite as good ground as the present opposition. What then is the Consequence?”

The same is true here. The drivers of electric cars and hybrids will protest a new tax on them, but opposition and clams of unfairness can be found in any tax. At some point, if we have decided that we collectively want to spend this money, we have to tax people to get the money somehow. It seems that spreading the burden out on as many users of the system as possible is the fairest way to do it.

Walker Proposes Transportation Compromise

This looks like a very viable plan.

First, we propose reducing transportation fund supported bonding by $200 million in this budget by using an improved transportation fund balance, project cost savings, and other administrative actions. We believe this can be accomplished while continuing to keep projects on schedule.

[…]

Second, approve contingency bonding for the Southeast Freeway Megaproject program.

[…]

Third, pass a strong and safe transportation budget without a gas tax or vehicle fee increase.

Lawmaker Floats User Fee for Heavy Trucks

Meh. They are still flailing around for more ways to raise taxes instead of controlling the spending. This one is just a tax on businesses.

MADISON – Wisconsin could break a budget stalemate, avoid toll roads and raise more than $250 million for highways over the next two years by using a little-known approach being floated by a key Republican lawmaker.

Wisconsin would join four other states in placing a per mile fee on the kinds of heavy trucks that do more damage to roads, under the concept offered by a member of the Legislature’s budget committee.

In general, the fee or tax could be implemented cheaply — a sharp contrast to the big investment that would be required to implement the toll roads being considered by Republican lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) said the approach could be paired with spending cuts to help close a long-term funding gap for the state’s road fund.

“I think this could be part of a broader solution as a revenue generator that’s equitable and sustainable,” she said.

Despite its advantages, Loudenbeck’s proposal faces an uncertain path forward at best. Many lawmakers don’t even know about it and a key industry group is not inclined to back it.

Walker Open to Tolling

Heh.

Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday that he’d consider highway tolls in Wisconsin if they’re collected from motorists entering the state, particularly from Illinois.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said separately that a highway tolling plan could be a key part of a broader deal for the state’s next transportation budget — a key area of disagreement among Republican Senate and Assembly lawmakers as they craft a 2017-19 state budget.

That disagreement, combined with divisions on how to address taxes and education spending, has put the two houses at loggerheads and stalled budget talks.

Here’s the thing… I’m not ideologically opposed to tolling. The technology is such that it isn’t a hassle and the notion of the expense of roads being paid for mostly by the people actively using them is fine in concept. The problem is that this doesn’t fix the problem of too much transportation spending. In fact, opening up another revenue source just aggravates the spending problem. If the legislature wants to change the funding system to more heavily shift the burden to tolls and fees, I’m fine with that, but only if the overall spending and taxes stays flat or, preferably, decreases. Otherwise, tolls are just another way to get more money out of Wisconsinites to overspend on transportation.

Walker Rejects Splitting Transportation From Budget

Good.

Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Thursday rejected an idea put forward by the Republican leaders of the Legislature’s budget committee to take up transportation funding in a separate bill outside the normal budget process.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said they support the option, which could extend debate about how to fund transportation beyond the July 1 start of the 2017-19 biennium.

It could also change the political dynamics of how a deal on transportation is reached, allowing minority Democrats who otherwise wouldn’t vote for a majority Republican-authored budget to boost one of the GOP factions on the contentious issue.

Here’s what Speaker Vos and others are up to… they want a tax increase for transportation. They know that they will not get that passed through the Republican caucus and Democrats won’t vote for the budget. So the tax increase is DOA. But if they split off transportation from the rest of the budget, they think that they can cobble together the tax-increasing group of Republicans and just enough Democrats get a tax increase passed.

But beyond political concerns, it does not make any sense to split off transportation from the rest of the budget. The whole purpose of writing a budget is to balance priorities against each other within the confines of limited resources. Splitting off a massive portion for separate consideration obliterates the budgeting process.

A rough road

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

After weeks of speculation and trial balloons, the Wisconsin Assembly leadership released a plan called “Road to a Flat Tax.” The plan was primarily authored by State Rep. Dale Kooyenga and cobbles together some 30 ideas with the promise of fixing the state’s long-term transportation funding issues and cutting taxes.

It has become fashionable in Washington, and now in Madison, to tackle every issue with these massive omnibus bills that are just complicated and opaque enough to provide politicians cover from contentious political issues. The Road to a Flat Tax plan is no different. It packages some truly terrific and transformative proposals with a few policy and political duds with the hope of convincing legislators to pass the package with the excuse that most of it is good.

Let us start with the great parts of this proposal. The Road to a Flat Tax does just that. It would eliminate the state property tax, as Gov. Walker has proposed, and gradually move Wisconsin to a flat 3.95 percent income tax over the next decade. It does so by eliminating and changing several major tax credits and phasing out four of the five tax brackets. Wisconsin would end up with a fair and flat income tax. Wisconsin’s Republicans are not ambitious enough to eliminate the state income tax like seven other states, but a flat income tax is the next best thing.

The Assembly Republicans’ plan also repeals Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for state projects, which would save taxpayers at least $300 million per biennium, according to a 2015 study by Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. The plan eliminates 180 positions from the Department of Transportation, which does not save any money yet, but gives the department more flexibility to reduce spending in the future. It reduces the state’s minimum markup law as it applies to gasoline (more on that later), lowers the gas tax, imposes a moratorium on roundabouts, imposes a fee on electric and hybrid vehicles and eliminates the ability of local governments to enact new wheel taxes.

Then there is the bad part of the proposal. The Road to a Flat Tax includes an intricate change to the way the state taxes gasoline that results in an overall tax increase. For the first time, the state would impose the state sales tax on gasoline. This is estimated to generate about $600 million in revenue over the biennium. In order to offset some

of that increase, the state would reduce the gas tax by 4.8 cents, thus shaving off $278 million of the increase. It would also change the minimum markup law to a mandatory 3 percent markup instead of the combined 9.18 percent. This would save consumers another roughly $50 million at the pump while cutting into the profits of gasoline retailers and wholesalers.

The end result after all of those changes is that Wisconsinites would see a tax increase of about $330 million per biennium. The increase in funding would be directed to paying down Wisconsin’s debt. Bear in mind, however, that funds that go into the Transportation Fund are fungible. Although the tax increase is allocated to debt reduction, that means that the money that would have been spent on debt service without the tax increase will now be spent on current transportation projects.

The tax increase to be spent on transportation has long been the ambition of Assembly Republican leadership and it at the heart of this proposal. Packaging it with a bevy of other tremendously positive initiatives appears designed to pull the tax increase through a reluctant Republican caucus. Rep. Kooyenga should be commended for advancing so many great ideas. Repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, implementing a flat income tax, eliminating the state property tax, and many other parts of the Road to a Flat Tax would be tremendously beneficial for Wisconsinites. But there is no rational reason, other than for political brinkmanship, to amalgamate all of these ideas into a single “take it or leave it” proposal. The legislature should take up each piece of the Road to a Flat Tax as separate bills and then vote on them based on their merits. Good legislation that would benefit Wisconsinites should not be weighed down by legislation that would not pass on its own.

Toll Roads Coming to Wisconsin?

Maybe.

State Assembly Republicans late this week unveiled their biennial state roads budget proposal. One part of that proposal, according to legislative memos, includes a plan to ask the federal government to ease restrictions that prevent the state from implementing toll roads on major Interstate highways.

In the same proposal, Assembly Republicans call for the state to apply for enrollment in two federal pilot programs to study the costs and benefits of tolling and determine whether any major highways in Wisconsin would be suited for toll roads.

State lawmakers involved in the proposal say they’re far from writing any hard plans into the state’s 2017-19 budget to pursue toll roads in Wisconsin, and it’s not clear if the toll roads proposal will gain enough support among state lawmakers to remain part of the roads budget as talks roll out this spring.

Toll roads seem to get floated every time politicians want more money for roads. It’s kind of a “give us more money or we’ll have to create toll roads!” kind of threat. Although many states have moved to install toll roads to help pay for them, Wisconsinites are culturally opposed to them.

Personally, I don’t mind toll roads. The technology has gotten to the point of making the experience virtually painless and I generally support the notion of shifting the majority of the cost for roads to the people who use them. The gas tax is an indirect way of doing that. Toll roads are a direct way of doing the same thing. Obviously, the government still needs to have a general transportation budget to pay for necessary, but lightly traveled roads. But there are some places where toll roads are quite sensible.

What I oppose is implementing toll roads just to increase transportation spending. If the state want to make I94 between Milwaukee and Madison a toll road and lower transportation taxes accordingly, then fine. If they want to make it a toll road and just increase spending, then no thanks.

Transportation Plan in the Works

It looks like the trial balloons are floating.

Here’s some of what Kooyenga has discussed:

  • Applying the state’s 5% sales tax to gasoline, which could bring in up to 10 cents per gallon at current gasoline prices in the Milwaukee area. Unlike the current flat gas tax, the sales tax on gasoline could rise —  or fall —  as fuel prices go up and down.
  • Eliminating 4 to 5 cents of the state’s 32.9-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, which would soften the overall tax increase on drivers.
  • Making significant cuts to income taxes as part of a plan to move to a 4% flat tax over many years. “The long-term goal is to say we have a flat tax,” Vos acknowledged.
  • Cutting roughly $300 million of the $500 million in borrowing for roads contained in Walker’s two-year budget bill. That means that over the next two years much of the new money being raised would go for debt reduction rather than for additional road projects — a potential sticking point for road builders who have been seeking more money for highways.
  • Reducing the state-mandated markup on gasoline prices from its current level of 9.18% over the average wholesale price to something lower, such as 3%. That could help shield drivers from cost increases from the new taxes, but this provision will be controversial and likely draw opposition from some Wisconsin retailers such as convenience store chain Kwik Trip.
  • Repealing the state’s minimum wage standards — known as the prevailing wage —  for workers on public works projects such as road and bridge construction.
  • Cutting about 180 Department of Transportation engineers who were added to the department’s payroll in 2013. Their work would likely be picked up by private-sector engineers.
  • Applying to the federal government for permission to place tolls on certain state highways.

Obviously, we need to see the actual plan before spending too much time on it, but there are some good things in here. I like the repeal of prevailing wage, cutting staff, cutting income taxes, etc. I don’t like tax increases or toll roads. What bothers me the most is that except for the prevailing wage proposal, there isn’t anything in here that addresses the causes for high spending. Wisconsin still spends more on roads per mile than comparable states. Why? What about questionable requirements that drive up costs (roundabouts, art work, bike lanes, etc.)? What about wasteful spending on mass transit? Before legislators spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to squeeze more transportation taxes out of Wisconsinites, they need to address the causes of the bloated spending.

But we’ll see… Kooyenga is a smart guy and a solid conservative. I expect that the full plan with have more good than bad.

“More than enough” Money for Transportation

Yep. And since there’s “more than enough,” can we refund the surplus in the form of a tax cut?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Monday there is “more than enough revenue” to fund transportation projects without increasing the gas tax or vehicle registration fees.

Reports last week indicated the governor might be willing to consider raising registration fees, but Walker told reporters at the Capitol he doesn’t have “any interest” in doing that. He said he has explicitly stated his opposition to a gas tax hike because lawmakers have raised the possibility.

“I don’t know of anyone in the Legislature who’s talking about vehicle registration fees,” Walker said. “For us, I think there is more than enough revenue out there. I’m willing to work with them.”

Over-engineered and Over Budget

Senator Marklein nails it. The “fix” for the transportation budget isn’t a massive single fix. It is making thousands of smaller decisions in a smarter way.

In fact, most of our county highway commissioners feel that many DOT projects are over-engineered and over-designed, which add significant costs. A bridge project in the town of Sylvan in Richland County is a good example of this issue. The design and oversight costs of this project were 37 percent of the total project cost of $362,094.94. We spent $47,306.48 for design, $15,000.00 for design oversight and $70,000 for construction oversight. The actual construction cost is $229,788.46.

Let’s face it, the roads in southwest Wisconsin are in poor condition. We know that right now, we could spend millions to fix the roads in our communities without a multitude of studies to assess need. Our highway commissioners know where our priorities should be and are poised to recommend projects that will have an immediate, positive impact on our communities and local economies.

Overall, I think there are opportunities in the findings of this audit. We have the opportunity to be more efficient in planning, design and actual construction. We spend an unbelievable amount of money before we ever put a shovel into the ground. While planning is necessary, the amount of planning is unreasonable. The DOT is planning for projects that are 25 years into our future, while we can’t afford the projects that we already have on the books.

This audit also shows us that despite the amount of money and time spent in planning, the DOT hasn’t been taking important factors into consideration as they plan. What good is planning if it is incomplete?

And the MacIver Institute set out to actually show us the bridge that Senator Marklein referenced. It is really hard to look at that bridge and justify why the DOT spent $362k on it.

Digging Into Transportation Spending

The MacIver Institute does the math on Wisconsin’s transportation budget and it isn’t pretty. This comparison jumps out at me.

highwayspending

Much of the debate over the upcoming transportation budget is being framed with some basic assumptions that need to be challenged. The basic argument being used is, “the roads suck and we need more money, so should we borrow it or raise taxes?”

Before we even get to that question, lawmakers need much more visibility on how the DOT is spending money and what their priorities are. The data indicates that Wisconsin spends an metric crap-ton more on transportation than comparable states and has worse roads. Why? Why are we spending money on more expansion at the expense of maintaining the roads we have? How many times has the DOT’s traffic estimates which were used to justify expansion fallen short? (hint: many). What policies are unnecessarily driving up the cost of road work (bidding process, prevailing wage requirements, design requirements, etc.)?

We may get to the point that we need to seriously consider more transportation spending, but we are nowhere near that point yet. The evidence indicates that the DOT has been a poorly run agency that overspends on poor priorities for decades. Until that ship is put right, more money will only encourage more bad behavior.

DOT Halts Study of Highway Expansion

Good. We don’t have the money to do everything. Prioritize, people.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has stopped studying a potential expansion of interstate highways from Madison to Wisconsin Dells, a sign the department may be downsizing its road-building ambitions in the face of mounting budget pressure.

The move appears to foreclose any near-term efforts to expand a corridor that carries growing volumes of traffic, much of it tourism-based, from southern Wisconsin and Illinois to Wisconsin Dells and other points north and west.

In February the department said the corridor would experience “significant problems” from traffic congestion if it is not expanded.

Work on environmental studies of the corridor, which began in 2014, ended Friday, according to a statement from the DOT and federal highway officials. The announcement attributed the move “to recent and ongoing re-prioritization of major transportation projects.”

A Transportation Funding Anecdote

From the email:

“Fix Our House First”: A Transportation Funding Anecdote

Transportation funding has become a weighty budget discussion, especially over the past several years.  Elected officials have a duty to uphold the state and federal constitution while being good stewards of every dime deposited into the state’s coffers.  As such, elected leaders are obligated to root out inefficiencies and function as the singular voice for those we represent.   Last session, I had the honor of supporting a number of reform minded bills that would have eliminated or mandated a pause on excessive transportation spending. I supported giving local governments more control over the number of unnecessary roundabouts being built, preventing state taxpayer subsidization of Milwaukee’s streetcar operations, eliminated the costly and burdensome bike path mandate in road construction. I also supported pausing the installation of closed circuit cameras, overhead digital message boards and manually operated railroad crossing arms at interstate on-ramps.  Unfortunately, most of these recommendations didn’t even have the opportunity to receive a vote in the “people’s house”.  This isn’t the half of it.  During my research over the past few months, I have learned that the taxpayer owned Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been having a detrimental effect on our taxpayer funded transportation system.  Let me provide an anecdote: A round culvert system under a county highway has been flowing water efficiently for decades.  The culvert is deteriorating and must be replaced.  The typical replacement in this type of situation is a rectangular concrete box that allows more water flow than in the past.  This box culvert is lowered into the waterway, paved over the top, and is extremely cost effective.  This solution, though, is no longer good enough for Wisconsin rabbits, squirrels and waterways.  There are new terms, bankful width and ecopath, that have come into vogue.  These terms are exactly what you would expect.  DNR officials are measuring the bank of the waterway on either side of the original culvert and not only requiring a box culvert that extends from bank to bank of the actual waterway, but also including a path for our disenfranchised wildlife to walk through.  This absurdity has gone so far as to require county employees to shovel gravel onto the bottom of the concrete box to give the appearance of a more natural river bottom.  Benefit to the taxpayers?  Zero!  Burden to taxpayers?  Additional excavation and custom box culvert designs to the tune of thousands to tens of thousands of extra dollars per project.  Yes, we have issues with transportation funding in this state, but this example is barely a ripple in the stream.  The real solution does not begin with more revenue from your hard earned tax dollars, but with real leadership from your elected representatives and senators.

Respectfully,

 

Rep. Jesse Kremer