GOP would increase sales taxes to fix potholes while borrowing $1.3 billion for unneeded highway projects

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Do the potholes in your neighborhood look like they belong in Syria?

No surprise. The conditions of Wisconsin’s roads rank third worst in the nation, according to a recent study commissioned by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute.

The low ratings mark a dramatic decline for the state, which ranked 22nd in the country just 11 years ago. Fewer than half of Wisconsin’s roads rated as “good” or better, the report found.

According to the study’s researchers, the poor condition of our roads affects almost every industry and motorist in the state.

But now Republican lawmakers might give locals a new mechanism to maintain their roads — with a new tax. State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Halzehurst, and state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, have proposed giving voters the ability to increase their local sales tax by one-half cent to pay for road upkeep. That means people in localities that adopt the sales tax would then be paying four separate tax streams for road and highway upkeep.

Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which advocates for responsible land use, says the plan is highway robbery.

Most Wisconsinites believe the fees they’re charged for license plates, coupled with the gas taxes they pay when filling up their tanks, go toward keeping their roads in order. Those fees and taxes are collected into the state Transportation Fund. The original plan was to have the fund reimburse up to 80 percent of the costs of local road repairs to the communities where they were raised.

But times change. Today only about 20 percent of the money is returned to the localities where it’s paid. Instead, most of the money in the Transportation Fund pays for state highway projects, which, of course, do nothing to patch up the potholes that throw your car out of alignment.

Nor do they do much to relieve traffic, since many of the massive new highway projects are located on highway corridors where traffic use is declining. That’s because projects are based on obsolete WisDOT traffic projections.

Automobile use has dramatically declined as the state’s population is graying, car ownership among young people is falling and gas prices are volatile. Between 1981 and 1991, the number of miles driven in Wisconsin grew by a rate of 35 percent. In contrast, the growth rate from 2003 to 2013 was zero.

Researchers hired by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin compared the WisDOT traffic projections used for planning 11 upcoming major highway projects with today’s actual vehicle use of those highway stretches. They found that traffic counts on all of the projects are unlikely to come close to WisDOT’s outdated projections.

For example, the area of expansion on I–94 between Milwaukee and Kenosha is experiencing an annual traffic-rate reduction of 0.88 percent, far lower than the 0.75 percent increase projected by WisDOT. At the same time, the expansion work has caused horrendous traffic delays and accidents.

“WisDOT is projecting a 23-percent increase in traffic on I–94 near (Miller Park) by 2040,” said Hiniker. “However, actual traffic counts show that traffic has actually decreased by 8 percent along that stretch of highway. Present trends show that the WisDOT projections will never be achieved.” 

Despite these facts, Gov. Scott Walker wants to issue $1.3 billion in bonds to cover the projects already planned. The plan would leave the state that much more in debt, even as it faces a current budget deficit. The $1.3 billion is in addition to the money that’s already available in the Transportation Fund.

GOP lawmakers have balked at Walker’s highway borrowing plan, with most seeking to reduce its size at the least. Several have instead proposed to increase licensing fees and gas taxes, including Walker’s transportation secretary Mark Gottlieb last November.

But Walker has rejected that strategy, saying that fees are virtually taxes and he will not raise taxes.

Still, legislative Republicans are not on board, with even Walker’s most ardent supporters saying the state needs to find a sustainable solution for maintaining its transportation infrastructure. GOP state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who has overwhelmingly supported Walker’s policies in the past, complained that the bonding plan amounts to kicking the can down the road, a charge that Democratic supervisors on the Milwaukee County Board frequently leveled at Walker. The former Milwaukee County executive, Walker left the county with more obligations in debt repayment than money to spend on services, according to current County Executive Chris Abele.

Politics appear to prevent Walker from either endorsing the new taxes or cutting back on highway spending. Conventional wisdom is if Walker approved a tax increase, it would kill his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination. At the same time, road builders are among the most generous and dependable campaign contributors, and Walker could have his sights set on their financial support for his presidential aspirations.

So he’d rather borrow and, according to his critics, leave someone else in charge when the bill comes due.

But back to those potholes. In the past, property taxes filled in the growing funding gap between Transportation Fund disbursement to local governments and the cost of local road maintenance. But Walker froze property taxes in his first two budgets, leaving local lawmakers with no way to raise the money.

Now, faced with the choice of halting expensive highway projects, raising road-related fees or property taxes, the Legislature has floated the proposal of allowing local citizens to vote themselves a one-half cent sales tax increase. Ostensibly, Walker could then claim that he didn’t raise taxes — the people raised their own.

“It’s a hold-up,” Hiniker says. “The people are already paying taxes to maintain local roads, but their money is being used to build highways in other parts of the state. It’s unreal.”