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.”
In the Republicans’ 2011–13 biennial budget, funding was slashed in every major category, including education and health care, with one notable exception: transportation.
The GOP slashed school aid by more than $800 million, while transportation spending rose by $400 million. The increases were earmarked overwhelmingly for road builders.
If you think the money was used to fix potholes and repave bumpy local streets that keep throwing your wheels out of alignment, think again. The lion’s share of transportation dollars were virtual giveaways for road builders who write huge checks to the party in power – whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
Sixty-three percent of state transportation funding in the 2011–13 budget went to highway building and only 13 percent supported local road improvements, despite the fact that local roads account for 90 percent of the roads in Wisconsin. Eighty-four percent of all transportation bonding goes to highways, according to Hiniker.
“In 2001, highway miles driven in the state were very close to what they were in 2011, but the expenditures on expanding highways has gone up by about 60 percent,” Hiniker said. “If people aren’t driving more, why are we building more?”
The answer is that some of the dollars spent on bogus highway projects find their way into campaign coffers. Critics contend the situation amounts to money laundering – a means of allowing taxpayer dollars to be converted legally into political donations.
Hiniker is raising the issue now because Gov. Scott Walker wants to ratchet up highway spending by $688 million in the 2013–15 state budget. Since he’s completely tapped out the transportation fund, Walker is asking legislators to shift the cost of highway construction to the general fund. That means political payoffs to road builders will come from the same funding source that provides aid to schools and medical care for the poor.
“By transferring the costs of transit from the transportation fund to the general fund, the governor effectively borrows an additional $107 million from the general fund in the second year of the biennium (budget),” Hiniker said. “Using these funds to build more roads when the transportation fund doesn’t have the money to take care of existing roads means that even more general funds will be needed to maintain the new roads.”
Walker proposed the transfer to the general fund in the last budget, but legislators nixed it. Hiniker hopes an outcry of protest from the public will prevent Walker’s attempt in the next budget as well.
Interestingly, the Legislature has approved language for a constitutional amendment that would wall off the transportation fund for non-transportation purposes but did nothing to protect the general fund from raids for transportation purposes.
Most people wrongly assume that their gasoline taxes fund highway construction. In truth, gas taxes have not risen since 1993, so the burden for unnecessary highway projects is borne mostly by property tax payers.
“It’s time to recognize that highways are no longer even close to paying for themselves. We should either cut highway spending or make the tough decisions to raise revenues.”
At the same time Walker wants to put more money into the coffers of road builders, he’s slashing public transportation funding. One of his first acts as governor was turning down federal dollars to build a high-speed railway linking Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as Milwaukee and Madison. In addition to creating new jobs, the system would have increased economic activity by more efficiently linking the region’s major cities.
More recently, the GOP-controlled Legislature changed the rules surrounding financing for a rudimentary light-rail system for Milwaukee. The new rules would make the project prohibitively expensive. Other cities have found that such systems stimulate real-estate investments and bring increased economic activity to the neighborhoods they serve – both of which the state’s largest city and major economic generator could sorely use.
Public transit cuts
Although lawmakers scored brownie points with the road builders and fossil fuel companies that contribute money to them, the Legislature’s opposition to public transportation is out of synch with the times. Young people and the state’s increasingly graying population are demanding more of it. They don’t want to be totally dependent on cars.
Many cities that are thriving economically are investing not only in public transportation but also in bike trails and lanes, another strategy that Wisconsin Republicans strongly oppose.
“We have a $3 billion transportation budget and we can’t shuffle things around so that $10 million can go for transit?” Hiniker asked. “It’s so insignificant. It’s 0.3 percent of the transportation budget. Why are these guys so adamantly against it?”
Walker and other Republicans contend that public transit ridership is down. But Hiniker said that’s a situation they’ve purposely created.
“They cut transit service and raise fares. As a result, they lose riders. Then they say, ‘There are fewer riders, so let’s cut it some more,’” Hiniker explained.
“The road builders never want to see passenger rail come in and siphon away highway dollars,” Hiniker added. “Meanwhile, it’s the job of lawmakers to get reelected. They have to get money, and the road builders have it. Local transit and mayors don’t, so they follow the money. It’s the way the political economy works.”
(Editor’s note: WiG’s CEO is a supporter of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.)