Tag Archives: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

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.

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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.

Republicans and Dems united in opposition to Walker’s budget

Republicans and Democrats are both lined up in opposition to many of the key items in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s $68-billion budget proposal. 

Bipartisan resistance is growing to Walker’s plans to borrow $1.3 billion to pay for road construction and infrastructure projects, cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System, and pay for an expansion of the private school voucher program by taking money from public schools while holding their funding flat.

Walker’s budget also requires drug testing for public benefit recipients, which has proven costly in some states and ruled unconstitutional in others. The budget eliminates 400 state government positions, slashes funds for public broadcasting and weakens environmental oversight.

Walker says his plan offers bold ideas to reshape government, which is the emerging theme of his fledgling presidential campaign. Throughout the first month of his second term, Walker has been largely missing in Madison as he travels the country to court big-bucks conservative donors, meet with right-wing national leaders and build his name recognition among tea party supporters.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature’s GOP leadership is balking about the budget Walker is asking them to approve. They’ve been particularly outspoken about increasing borrowing by 30 percent to pay for highway projects, the majority of which are unnecessary, according to traffic studies.

“The biggest heartburn I have in regards to the proposed budget is the amount of bonding,” said budget committee member Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. “I know there’s a number of my colleagues who are quite concerned about that.”

Walker’s Department of Transportation had recommended $750 million in higher taxes and fees, including on gasoline and vehicle registrations, to pay for roads. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and other corporate-right groups had supported a modest gas tax increase.

But deferring, perhaps, to the anti-tax tea party voters who dominate Republican primaries, Walker nixed all tax or fee increases in favor of issuing bonds that won’t come due until he’s long gone. That drew criticism more than 400 local governments, road builders and labor unions.

Republicans also are joining Democrats in questioning Walker’s $300 million cut to UW, which amounts to 13 percent of the system’s budget. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the cut would create a $91-million budget hole at the system’s flagship school. Vos has said he’s worried the cut will make it more difficult for students to graduate in four years.

Along with his budget cut, Walker has proposed to give the system’s 26 campuses more autonomy and freedom from state laws and oversight, something university officials have lobbied for years to get. Although university officials have better received that part of the plan, many observers fear that it would embolden tuition hikes that would make college in the state less affordable than it already is.

UW-Madison faculty and staff planned to stage a rally and march on Feb. 14 to protest Walker’s proposed cuts to the UW System. The event, “Stop the Cuts — Save UW,” was set to begin at noon on the Library Mall. The Overpass Light Brigade planned a separate action at 6 p.m., when the group will spell out protest messages in lights.

While cutting UW funding, Walker’s budget would hold funding for public schools flat, while removing a 1,000-student cap on the private-school voucher program. Going forward, the program would be available to students transferring in from public schools at any point, and also private school students entering kindergarten, the first grade or ninth grade. Money to pay for it would come from state aid sent to the schools losing the student.

No increase in funding for schools amounts to a cut because they won’t be able to keep up with growing expenses, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. And, he added, taking money away from schools to pay for voucher students only compounds the problem, Evers said.

Democrats have criticized Walker and Republicans for using a previous surplus to pay for nearly $2 billion in tax cuts primarily benefiting corporations and the very wealthy over the past four years. Those tax cuts helped fuel the current budget gap.

With the budget now introduced, the debate now shifts to the Legislature, where lawmakers will spend the next four months working over Walker’s proposal before voting on it likely sometime in June.

Meanwhile, Walker will spend the coming months on the presidential campaign trail.

Pot hole pain: Street repairs jeopardized by fuzzy political road-building math

The most vicious winter in decades has left urban streets in Wisconsin so scarred with potholes that some look like they belong in developing nations.

“Once you get off the highways, it’s like you’re in Somalia or somewhere — it’s just crazy,” says Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. His Madison-based organization promotes land use and transportation policies that benefit the state’s economic, environmental and cultural health.

Neglected potholes in Milwaukee also are dragging down the state’s economic future, says Ald. Tony Zielinski, who represents the 14th District.

“The bad roads put Milwaukee at an economic disadvantage when it comes to competing for new businesses,” Zielinski said. “The state is not giving us adequate money to deal with this problem, and Milwaukee is the state’s economic engine. So having a poor infrastructure here hurts all of Wisconsin.”

Hiniker and other “smart-growth” supporters say the potholes also contribute to fatal accidents and wreak havoc on vehicles — blowing out tires, bending wheel rims, throwing out alignments and devastating shock-absorption systems.

But in addition to creating danger and damage, potholes represent government mismanagement of public funds for political purposes at its worst, according to a growing chorus of critics.

Hiniker jokes that the state’s road builders are the best-financed unit of state government. 

Danger and graft

Last year, TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, released a report estimating that “unacceptably rough” roads cost a total of $80 billion nationwide, with the average urban driver faced with $377 a year in repairs.

This year’s toll will likely be much higher in urban areas of Wisconsin.

A Milwaukee call center that takes public requests for pothole repairs got 3,680 reports Jan. 1 – March 20 this year. That compares with 2,695 from Jan. 2 to March 20 of last year — a 27-percent increase.

Unfortunately, there’s not much Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can do about the pothole menace. When it comes to paying for road repairs, the state is stingy and has policies that limit the ability of local  officials to address infrastructure problems.

Smart-growth advocates say that Wisconsin and most other state governments overwhelmingly favor new construction over road maintenance, because builders  funnel more cash back into elected officials’ coffers — an assertion that the numbers seem to bear out.

Last year Gov. Scott Walker allocated $3.3 billion in transportation spending, and the lion’s share of it went toward expanding highways, some of which actually have declining traffic, and building new highways where there’s not nearly enough use to justify them, Hiniker said.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee and other urban areas of Wisconsin got the fuzzy end of the funding lollipop. Milwaukee wound up with only $2.4 million for street repairs last year, and while this year the reimbursements might rise by up to 4 percent, it’s not enough to address the magnitude of the problem, according to analysts.

But Hiniker and others stress that Walker and his fellow Republicans can’t be singled out to shoulder the blame for the situation. Misuse of transportation funds to favor road builders is a bipartisan scam — essentially a legal form of graft that’s equally exploited by both Democrats and Republicans, they say.

Fuzzy math and secret gifts

The only way that Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can get more funding for road repairs is by increasing property taxes. But politics and the state’s lagging economy make that option a non-starter. Instead, cities are stuck with choosing between filling in van-eating sinkholes and maintaining an adequate fire department, according to city halls across the state.

Drivers assume that the various automobile fees and taxes they pay at the pump cover the cost of local road repairs. But by the time that money winds its way through the labyrinthine process of transportation funding, there’s very little left for the neighborhood pothole that nearly killed you.

Hiniker says it’s time for taxpayers to wake up and smell the tar.

As Hiniker tells the story, sometime during the 1980s local municipalities asked the Legislature for permission to raise money to pay for road resurfacing and other such infrastructure repairs. But lawmakers at the time said no, instead promising to reimburse cities and towns for 85 percent of such incurred costs from the state’s segregated Transportation Fund. 

The percentage of reimbursement has steadily declined over the past decade. Now it’s only about 12 percent, Hiniker estimates. It’s hard to tease out the actual number, because the Wisconsin Department of Transportation categorizes work involved in many new construction projects as repairs, even if the “repairs” are made to roads already in good condition.

For instance, the expansion of I-94 from Milwaukee to Kenosha cost $2.2 billion, but only $200 million of that was classified as new construction. All the rest of the cost fell into the category of repair and maintenance.

That’s not the only situation in which transportation-funding math gets fuzzy. Dennis Yaccarino, a budget analyst for the City of Milwaukee, says WisDOT claims to have increased the amount of shared revenue given to municipalities for road repairs. It has, but in a way that fails to benefit cities such as Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.The forumula used is almost impenetrably complicated and gives sprawling rural areas an advantage over heavily trafficked urban locations.

The math goes from fuzzy to utterly opaque when it comes to figuring out how much the state’s two dozen or so road builders give to lawmakers in each election cycle. That’s partly due to new rules that allow for unlimited anonymous donations to third-party campaign activity and partly due to the time-honored practices of bundling donations or making them under the names of friends or family members.

Down the road

Walker’s current state biennial budget contains so many new highway projects that the state would have to borrow about $993 million to pay for them all. Walker has justified piling on the future debt by touting all the construction jobs that the new projects would generate — a position that puts him at odds with himself.

In the past, Walker ruled out using public works to create jobs, implying that they represent a kind of socialism that stymies the free-enterprise system. He’s also opposed projects that burden the future with costs, such as health care expansion. In fact, he cited both objections in one of the most controversial decisions he’s made as governor — killing an inked deal to implement a high-speed rail system from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis. 

Along with that move, Walker turned down more than $800 million in federal funds, as well as all the jobs and economic activity the project would have generated. He also ensured more strain on state highways — strain that could have been avoided if people had another way to travel those heavily trafficked corridors. In fact, polls increasingly show that people, especially young people, prefer alternative travel options over driving.

Ironically, Walker said at the time that maintaining the trains would burden future taxpayers with debt. But, as Hiniker points out, that’s exactly what the governor’s new highway-building projects do. He’s budgeted insufficiently for future repairs, but certainly they will have to be made on every mile of highway that he builds, according to Hiniker.

So, in addition to the debt Walker will incur by borrowing money to pay for highways that experts say are largely unneeded, he’s adding to future budgetary woes.

For more

Visit Wisconsin Highway Waste on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/highwaywastewisconsin?fref=ts

Also read Jim Rowen’s blog about wasteful highway spending:  http://thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/2014/03/fix-potholes-wisconsin-pols-buying-more.html?m=1

Roads keep lawmakers in cash

With the billions spent on road building in Wisconsin, why are our local roads in such poor condition? Part of the answer is that money allocated for repairs is actually being spent on unnecessary new construction projects.

Why? New construction projects are relatively expensive and provide roadbuilders with higher profits. Roadbuilders then donate a portion of those profits to the lawmakers of both parties who authorize them.

This legal form of what amounts to graft comes at a time when fewer miles are being driven in the state and projected highway usage is on the decline, according to solid studies by WISPRIG Foundation. Aging baby boomers and millennials are driving less. Yet new highway construction money keeps flowing while the public transportation needs of city dwellers go unfunded. 

In effect, the tax dollars you’re paying for road repairs are winding up in the pockets of lawmakers who vote not to repair roads but rather to build new ones that you don’t want.

Under Gov. Scott Walker’s current budget, the state will borrow $1 billion for roadwork. That’s odd for a governor who says he’s against big public projects.

Walker’s move comes at a time when the state has nearly a billion-dollar surplus that he could use to plug the $1.7 billion budget deficit he’s created, according to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles he vowed during his campaign that he would use in office. A recently released study of the states’ cash solvency (which refers to the state’s ability to pay bills in the near term) found that Wisconsin ranks 43rd.

Still, Walker’s $1 billion proposal means there’sw plenty of money to repair the crumbling bridges and potholes that are destroying your vehicle, but lawmakers don’t want to sacrifice your money for those measly projects when they get more payback from building new roads and bridges and expanding old ones that don’t require expansion.

Mark Wolfgram, retired division of transportation investment administrator at Wisconsin Department of Transportation, explained that road builders need to keep using their large equipment — and that equipment can only be used for new roads, not repairs. In other words, the state is providing an assured annuity of funding from taxpayers to maintain highway builders through the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

One of the more egregious cases of wasting taxpayer dollars to appease the road builders’ lobby is the proposed expansion of Highway 23 in Sheboygan County into a four-lane expressway connecting Sheboygan and Fond du Lac. This $128-million project was slipped into the budget by local legislators despite no demonstrable need for it based on traffic volume or safety considerations. In fact, the highway’s traffic volume falls short of the DOT’s own projections, and its crash rates are on par with other similar highways.

Highway 57 from Port Washington to Plymouth and Highway 151 from Dodgeville to Dickeyville are among the other numerous examples of unjustified highway construction.

Meanwhile, local governments can’t afford their road repairs. Witness the potholes in the City of Milwaukee as you drive to the expensive, newly reconstructed airport interchange.

Road builders are lavished with generous funding while funding for education, the environment, crime and poverty programs are twisting in the wind. Walker’s recent proposal to increase road-building funds comes at the expense of critical government programs that serve taxpayers instead of politicians.

For more information about this ongoing abuse of taxpayer money, go to Highway Waste Wisconsin at www.facebook.com/highwaywastewisconsin.