Tag Archives: Mark Gottlieb

Audit: Department of Transportation vastly underestimated costs

Major highway projects in Wisconsin over the past decade have cost twice as much as the Department of Transportation  initially estimated, thanks in large part to not accounting for inflation, according to a highly critical audit released on Jan. 26.

The much-anticipated Legislative Audit Bureau report comes as the agency faces a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall and Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature are sparring over how to solve it.

The audit found that 19 major highway projects completed in the past decade cost a total of $1.5 billion — twice as much as the $772 million original price tag. It also said the cost of 16 ongoing major highway projects more than doubled to a total of $5.8 billion — increasing by a staggering $3.1 billion — from the time they were approved through August 2016.

Wisconsin’s roads have consistently deteriorated over the past five years and are in “considerably” worse shape than roads in six other Midwestern states, the report said. The proportion of state highways in good condition decreased from 53.5 percent in 2010 to 41.0 percent in 2015, the audit said.

Walker, who canceled a series of public events scheduled for Jan. 26 due to illness, has insisted that he won’t raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees to plug the transportation budget shortfall to pay for ongoing road projects. His plan is to borrow about half a billion dollars and delay about that much in ongoing major highway work.

Assembly Republicans are calling for $300 million in transportation-related tax and fee increases along with unspecified tax cuts elsewhere.

Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson said the report doesn’t change the governor’s position.

“The bottom line is, we shouldn’t even be thinking about raising the gas tax or fees until we find every last cost savings at DOT, and the audit shows we can find more savings,” Evenson said. “We welcome the opportunity to deliver services taxpayers expect at a price they can afford.”

Democrats seized on the audit, saying it shows that Walker and Republicans — who have controlled state government since 2011 — have failed on roads, created a crisis, and put drivers’ safety at risk.

“The Republican leadership’s neglect of our roads is as inexcusable as it is unacceptable,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca. “Our crumbling infrastructure is costing taxpayers and hurting our economy.”

While many Republicans said the report was helpful in showing where Audit: Department of Transportation vastly underestimates costs can save money, Audit Committee co-chair Sen. Rob Cowles was more critical.

“(The audit) will be devastating to the management of the DOT,” Cowles told WHBY on Jan 26. “They have to do this whole thing differently.”

He plans to hold a public hearing on the report within the next two weeks.

The audit said the Department of Transportation hasn’t consistently used performance measures to improve its operations and can do more to control costs. It also doesn’t sufficiently take into account how inflation and unexpected cost overruns affect the price tag of projects, the audit said.

Cowles said the underestimated costs made the projects more attractive to lawmakers, thus increasing the chance of the Legislature approving them. He stopped short of saying department officials were intentionally low-balling bids to get approval.

The audit bureau recommended that the WISDOT use its money more effectively and improve how it manages highway planning, engineering, construction and maintenance.

Agency Secretary Dave Ross, the former mayor of Superior who has been on the job less than a month, said the audit “provides a road map to improved efficiency and transparency at the DOT.” Ross said he’ll work to implement recommendations for improvement. Ross replaced Mark Gottlieb, who resigned as secretary three weeks ago.

GOP created state’s transportation budget problems but can’t fix them

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jennifer Shilling said in an interview with The Associated Press that it’s not up to Democrats to come up with a plan to plug a projected $1 billion transportation budget shortfall. Republicans have been in complete control of the governor’s office and Legislature since 2011 and will return in 2017 with even larger majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

“Republicans own this,” Shilling said of the transportation problem. “They own this Legislature right now. I don’t think it’s up to the minority party to have all the answers.”

Democrats have proposed broadening the base of funding for the state’s transportation budget, including raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Whether to even consider higher taxes and fees is dividing Republicans.

Assembly GOP leaders have said everything should be considered. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos advocates for considering tax and fee increases. He distributed a briefing document to Republican lawmakers and reporters titled “No Easy Answers.”

That’s the message Democrats were delivering on the campaign trail, Shilling said.

“We can have a role in finding things that are acceptable,” she said. “Clearly Democrats can propose something but it’s the Republicans who are in control of the governor’s office and Senate and Assembly right now. And the Republicans are fighting right now. It’s like the right hand doesn’t agree with what the far right hand is wanting to do.”

Fourth worst in the nation

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Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling

Gov. Scott Walker has insisted he won’t raise taxes to pay for roads, unless there’s a corresponding cut someplace else. Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he won’t pass a roads funding plan that Walker would veto, and two Republican senators earlier this week spoke out in opposition to raising taxes.

At a public hearing Dec. 6, Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said the condition of Wisconsin’s roads will worsen over the next 10 years and projects will be delayed for decades without an increase in spending.

The U.S. Department of Transportation ranks Wisconsin’s roadways as the fourth worst in the nation.

Gottlieb’s department’s budget would borrow half a billion dollars over the next two years and save nearly half a billion more dollars by delaying work on major projects. Shilling said Democrats agree with some Republicans who are arguing that more borrowing is not the answer to paying for the state’s roads and other transportation needs.

Democrats return to the Senate with their smallest numbers since 1971. Republicans will have a 20-13 majority there and a 64-35 majority in the Assembly. That is their largest since 1957.

Gottlieb testified on Dec. 6 that the percentage of Wisconsin roads in poor condition would double to 42 percent over the next decade, projects could be delayed for decades, and incoming revenue will not keep pace with inflation.

Even so, Gottlieb defended the department’s two-year budget proposal, which he said was written under orders from Walker not to increase the gasoline tax or raise vehicle fees.

“The governor has made a determination this is not the right time to raise taxes on Wisconsin businesses and families,” Gottlieb said.

Walker has always preferred borrowing money to be paid for at a later date — presumably when he’s out of office — over raising taxes and fees. As Milwaukee County Executive, he left the county in so much debt that his successor Chris Abele said taxpayers were paying more to service Walker’s debt than to provide services to residents.

But bragging rights to not raising taxes is an ace in the hole for a right-wing Republican with higher political ambitions, such as Walker.

‘Disinvestment’

Rep. John Nygren, a Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, supports considering gas and fee hikes to pay for roads through the transportation budget. He joined with Democratic Rep. Robb Kahl in saying the current spending request is a disinvestment in roads that will hurt the state’s economy and make roads less safe while not addressing growth or other needs.

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John Nygren, Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s budget writing committee

Kahl and Gottlieb were members of a commission four years ago that studied Wisconsin road funding and needs for the future. The “disinvestment” level was the lowest of four that a commission envisioned for road funding over the next decade. That level imagined spending on transportation being flat, a scenario that envisioned “significant deterioration” in state and local roads and bridges with projects delayed for years.

“I actually think this budget looks lower than disinvestment,” Kahl said.

The commission four years ago issued a series of recommendations to improve the condition and safety of Wisconsin’s roads and transportation systems, including raising taxes and fees. Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored those recommendations.

But some Republicans are saying now is the time to consider raising taxes and fees, even though Walker and others insist it is not.

“This is not something I’m excited about, but we should consider all our options,” Nygren said.

‘Not a sustainable path’

The Dec. 6 hearing, which included invited testimony from road builders, environmentalists, local governments and others, was called by the Assembly GOP to gather information as leaders work on an alternate spending proposal. The fight over road funding, which faces a nearly $1 billion shortfall, is expected to be a central focus of the Legislature next year as lawmakers work on writing a new two-year state budget.

The DOT budget proposal that Walker supports calls for borrowing $500 million over the next two years and saving $447 million by delaying work on major projects. Delayed work would include the final phase of rebuilding and expanding Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange and expansion of Madison’s Beltline and nearby roads in the southwestern part of the city. There would also be no money for expanding Interstate 94 from Milwaukee south to Illinois.

Gottlieb defended the DOT’s management in recent years, referring to a report circulated to lawmakers this week that the department estimates it saved nearly $100 million this year alone thanks to a variety of efficiency measures. And, he said the estimated cost to operate a midsized vehicle in Wisconsin was lower than in neighboring states.

But he also testified that incoming revenue to the department was projected to increase 0.51 percent annually in the face of inflation increasing 1.8 percent.

“This is not a sustainable path,” said Democratic Rep. Deb Kolste, of Janesville.

Democrats blame the shortfall on Walker’s massive tax cuts for Wisconsin’s wealthiest families and “incentives” for politically connected corporations.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.

 

State ranks 47th in road quality, but Walker refuses to act

Making the necessary investments in Wisconsin roads and transportation infrastructure is a no-brainer for Wisconsin residents. Keeping our economy moving and making sure that goods can get to market is about as pro-business and pro-worker as one can get. Good leaders recognize that.

But these days, moving forward on common sense transportation solutions is like wading through wet cement. Wisconsin is bogged down by Gov. Scott Walker, an entrenched ideologue who equates doing nothing with being principled.

Wisconsin currently ranks 47th in road quality, and earlier this month Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb gave up trying to fix that. Gottlieb waived the white flag, stating he would no longer seek any increase in transportation revenue in his next budget proposal because he knows the governor won’t budge.

Now the governor has doubled down, refusing to consider available options and explicitly prohibiting his transportation department from proposing any new sources of revenue. Acting like a stick-in-the-concrete is not leadership. As Wisconsin roads crumble, we need real leadership and we need to make tough decisions.

Nothing demonstrates a lack of leadership better than a lack of followers. Few Wisconsin legislators, including his fellow Republicans, agree with the governor’s political obstruction to maintain Wisconsin roads nor his fanatical opposition to reasonable policy. In fact, both Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke have openly opposed Walker’s stance on transportation funding, and both have called for new revenue.

Rather than working with the Legislature to ensure sustainable transportation funding, Walker insists that doing nothing — and being proud of it — is the only way forward.

This approach couldn’t be more wrong. Avoiding the responsibility to fund maintenance for Wisconsin roads costs motorists $6 billion a year. More importantly, refusing to fund the costs of infrastructure repair could end up costing Wisconsinites their lives: There are 1,970 bridges in Wisconsin that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

When it comes to the dilapidated condition of Wisconsin roads, we know what the problem is and how to fix it. We need leadership. Refusing to properly fund our infrastructure is not leadership. It’s negligence.

My fellow Democrats and I stand ready to solve Wisconsin’s transportation problems. We stand ready to lead.

Mark Spreitzer represents the 45th Assembly District.

No repairs for state’s roads, which are among nation’s worst

Data released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation found the condition of Wisconsin’s roads to be fourth worst in the nation. According to DOT, 71 percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

But Wisconsin’s transportation chief said he wouldn’t ask for any major tax or fee increases, acknowledging that such a move would delay road expansion work and upkeep on all but the state’s most-traveled highways.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told the Wisconsin State Journal that his budget due in September will focus on maintaining the state’s bridges and highways, instead of expanding the well-traveled roads and preserving those lesser traveled.

In contrast to the budget proposal he submitted two years ago, it wouldn’t outline ways to increase funding for Wisconsin roads, Gottlieb said.

“The decision about whether or not that’s enough investment in transportation — or whether additional revenues should be raised to make more investments — is a decision that the Legislature and the governor will make,” he said.

Gov. Scott Walker told reporters that he stands by his commitment not to add a gas tax or raise vehicle registration fees unless there’s a corresponding decrease in state taxes.

“I’m not going to add to the overall tax burden on the hardworking people of the state,” Walker said.

Walker has initiated massive tax cuts for corporations and the state’s wealthiest citizens, but virtually increased taxes on the poorest and hurt the middle class.

In the 2015–2017 budget, Gottlieb asked for about $750 million in new taxes and fees, including those on fuel sales and new-vehicle purchases. But the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected those proposals, fearing it make them politically vulnerable after promising not to raise taxes.

The Legislature has slashed funding to the University of Wisconsin system and public schools in order to pay for tax cuts to the wealthy

If his latest budget request is adopted, Gottlieb said it would delay highway projects throughout the state, but it’s too early to tell which projects would be delayed and for how long. Many projects that are well underway could be halted, prolonging massive traffic jams and driver safety.

Walker said his priority would be maintaining existing infrastructure and addressing safety concerns.

“There will probably not be any whole new wave of major projects,” Walker said. “For the ones we’ve talked about, we’ll have to figure out ways we can continue those, but we won’t be adding huge new projects on top of it.”

Republican state Rep. Keith Ripp of Lodi said rural districts like his own “have already been hit hard by delays” in funding in the current budget.

“We really need to be looking at long-term funding solutions before our infrastructure starts negatively affecting Wisconsin’s economic growth,” he said.

Gottlieb said maintaining bridges and U.S. interstates and highways will be a priority. But he acknowledged that would come at the expense of maintaining other roads.

“That non-backbone system, which is about 90 percent of the state highway system, is going to continue to deteriorate in condition,” Gottlieb said.

 

 

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

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.”