Boots & Sabers

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0651, 16 Jan 19

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News this week.

During the deliberation about Wisconsin’s current budget, the most contentious issue was about whether or not we should increase spending on the state’s transportation infrastructure. One reason that the debate was so heated is because with Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund, increasing spending means an unpopular increase in taxes. As we begin debating Wisconsin’s next budget, transportation spending is again a hot issue, but the lines of battle need to move.

The state of Wisconsin first segregated the transportation fund from the general fund in 1945, some 22 years before the Department of Transportation was created. Wisconsin has several taxes and fees that shovel money into the transportation fund including gas taxes, registration fees, fees on rental vehicles, airline property taxes, railroad property taxes, outdoor advertising revenue, etc. The two primary transportation funding sources are the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

All of these funding sources have one thing in common. They are meant to serve as a proxy for usage. The underlying philosophy of transportation funding in Wisconsin is that people who use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure more should pay more for it. The difficulty is that as the technology of transportation has advanced and diversified, usage proxies like fuel consumption have become less valid.

Setting aside for the moment the debate over whether or not Wisconsin needs to spend more on transportation (we do not), in the current paradigm, if Wisconsin wants to spend more, then we need to raise existing taxes or find new ones. Neither of those options has been popular.

Several states have implemented toll roads to generate more revenue, but the idea has been almost universally rejected in Wisconsin. The idea of a tax on actual mileage has been floated in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but the thought of the government tracking our vehicles is distasteful.

The friction between the opposition to increased taxes grinding against the push for more transportation spending is what creates the heat for the political debate. The friction is misplaced. The heart of the debate is centered on the supposition that only the people who directly use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure should be the ones to pay for it. That is why the transportation fund is segregated and that is why all of the supporting taxes and fees are targeted at people who use the transportation system. The supposition is flawed.

Everyone in Wisconsin benefits from Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure irrespective of how much they actually use it themselves. Every Wisconsinites benefits either directly or indirectly from the commerce that relies on our transportation infrastructure, the goods and services delivered to our homes and retailers, the accessibility of emergency services, and so much more. The person who does not own a car and has everything delivered to their home benefits just as much as the avid driver who is on the road several times a day.

If everyone benefits from our transportation infrastructure, why are we getting twisted around the axle of who pays for it? Shouldn’t we all pay for it? Wisconsinites have long since agreed that we all benefit from, and all should pay for, education, law enforcement, environmental protections, etc. It is time for transportation to join the club.

While some taxes and fees are designated for transportation needs and lawmakers are constitutionally prohibited from spending that revenue on other needs, the spending for transportation can come from any source. Over the years, it has been quite common for the budget to transfer tax revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund to supplement the spending. In the current budget, over $82 million was spent on transportation from the general fund.

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmental protection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

Wisconsin does not need to spend more on transportation infrastructure, but if lawmakers think it does, they do not need to raise taxes. They can easily use the general fund to increase spending and explain to the taxpayers why it is a priority. That is their job.


0651, 16 January 2019


  1. steveegg

    The DOT is still a very wasteful entity, and almost certainly about to become even more wasteful.  Let me count some of the ways:

    – Replace perfectly good intersections with massive roundabouts.
    – Replace perfectly good traffic lights with massive, and more numerous, versions, complete with flashing yellow left-turn signals.
    – “Complete” roads, with separate bicycle lanes and sidewalks, even in heavy industrial areas with 5 residences in a 2-mile stretch (all concentrated in the eastern mile).

  2. Owen

    Agreed. I’m just trying to point out that the assumption that we have to raise taxes to increase spending is wrong. They can spend more on transportation if they want. They can pull the increase out of the General fund and explain why increasing spending on transportation is more important than education, prisons, etc.

  3. dad29

    DOT is certainly spendthrift.  I put on quite a bit (>10,000 miles/year) on State highways in WI, MN, IA, IL, OH, and MI.  (There are another >15,000/year on Interstates).

    Wisconsin roads are no worse, and often better, than State highways in all those other places.

    DOT is a massive self-justification scheme which in some ways resembles the Pentagon…..”Spend, SPEND, no matter efficacy”….and it shows.

  4. Le Roi du Nord

    I had the pleasure this week of hearing the new DOT Secretary address a meeting of local elected officials, DPW’s, Highway Commissioners, and transportation operations managers.  Sec. Thompson gave a positive message regarding the near future and beyond, but had to temper our optimism with some realities.  Because of  shortsightedness, and the refusal of the previous  administration to be responsible managers of the taxpayers $$, a significant portion of transportation revenues is spent on debt service.  No one benefits from that scenario except the bankers.  So you folks can stick your collective heads in the sand, but like it of not, things will have to change regarding transportation funding.


    At that same gathering I talked to 20-30 professionals in the storm water field; elected officials, owners, designers, suppliers, installers, etc..  None of them agreed with your claim that MS4 requirements disproportionately affect poor folk.    Perhaps you should take better look at how your community is (or isn’t) doing things.

  5. Kevin Scheunemann


    Talk about the meeting of the blind.  Of course a bunch of bureaucrats, municipal engineers, and companies doing the construction are going to say this costs nothing and nobody but the rich pay.   Sounds like a meeting of the Make America Venzuela club.

    Care to name, names at that meeting?

  6. jjf

    Kevin, care to explain why your permits are onerous?

  7. Le Roi du Nord


    You forgot the elected officials in attendance.  You know, folks just like you and me, elected by the citizens to represent them.  Do you dismiss them as well?

    And why do you continue to misrepresent what I said?  “are going to say this costs nothing and nobody but the rich pay”.  I made no such statement, and can prove it (see above).  Why do you feel the need to lie about things that are so easily proven?  Is it pathology, ego, narcissism, fear of failure, or just chronic disengagement from reality??

  8. Kevin Scheunemann


    I am still blown away you actually agree a permit is a mandate and requires you to do something unfunded after all your absurd denials the last few weeeks that permits require you to do things!

    I see it took 20-30 “professionals” to finally get through to you.

    That’s progress at least.

    I’ll accept your apology anytime that I was correct about wastewater and MS-4 permits require you to do costly things.

    That would be first step in this discussion.

  9. Le Roi du Nord


    I agreed to nothing of the sort.  You really should seek help. But it may be too late to save your soul.

  10. Kevin Scheunemann


    It is impossible to discuss this subject if we cannot agree the permits inflict costly mandates.

    You seemed to agree because you accused bad taxing policy for inflicting the cost on poor.

    If you cannot get your story straight, rational discussion on topic is impossible.

  11. dad29

    a significant portion of transportation revenues is spent on debt service.

    Just like school bonding!

    Here’s an idea:  dedicate MORE DOT revs to paying down the debt quickly.  Screw the bankers, not the motorists and taxpayers.

    Oh, wait, I forgot:  you’re one of the spend-a-holics associated with DOT.

  12. jjf

    Kevin, you think you should be able to dump what you want down the drains, for free?  Or that whatever you’ve already paying, it’s magically just right and you should pay no more?

  13. Le Roi du Nord


    k doesn’t care one bit about water quality, only for his need to be right.

  14. jjf

    It would seem to be pretty simple to explain…  for example, “I want to dump 2,000 gallons of milky wash down the drain, they want me to measure density with an expensive gizmo and then pay accordingly and it’ll force me to raise prices by X.”  Or, “Golly, I want a big parking lot and salt and sand it in the winter, but don’t want to pay for all the rain that goes down the storm drains.”

  15. Kevin Scheunemann

    Jjf, Nord,

    MS4 permitting does not address anything that goes in storm drain. If neighbor is illegally dumping motor oil in storm drain, MS4 permitting does nothing to change that.

    So your argument is foolish. There are laws already against doing that.

    MS-4 permitting is about requiring municipality to “treat” storm water, whether by bio filter or some other device. That costs money. Storm water has always flowed directly to river. Now we have a “bio-filter” with hope whatever it is we are worrriex about settles in pond instead of river. It costs money to build it and maintain it. Who is footing the bill? It certainly is not state bureaucrats!

  16. Le Roi du Nord


    So the pollutants contained in storm water are good for you and yours?  Maybe you should have read the MS4 material I provided to you earlier.  But that would have allowed you to learn something, and that knowledge would be in conflict with your opinion.

  17. jjf

    K, so you’re saying your parking lots has costs to society that you did not predict?

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