Tag Archives: WisDot

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.

Wisconsin taxpayers ordered to pay overtime costs for Scott Walker’s 24/7 security on campaign trail after he fails to report their hours

Federal authorities are ordering retroactive overtime for Wisconsin State Patrol officers who serve as bodyguards for Gov. Scott Walker and other state officials, a television station reported.

The U.S. Department of Labor is requiring the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to award overtime pay dating to May 19, 2013, to nine State Patrol officers, WKOW-TV (http://bit.ly/1N1j1MN ) reported Friday. Those officers make up Wisconsin’s Dignitary Protection Unit, which provides security for Walker 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That includes the Republican’s protection on the presidential campaign trail. Since the State Patrol is a division of the state Transportation Department, the officers are paid out of that agency’s budget.

WISDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt told WKOW the agency was notified of the decision Monday but said that officials have not yet determined how much it will cost state taxpayers.

Rhonda Burke, a Labor Department spokeswoman in Chicago, told the station she did not yet know if the decision was handed out in response to a complaint. If a complaint was filed alleging overtime was not being correctly paid, federal wage and hour investigators would ask to examine payroll records, including hours worked and rates of pay, to ensure the state was paying overtime in accordance with the law, she said.

Burke did not immediately reply to Associated Press email requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Walker referred comment to Schmitt, who did not immediately respond to an email request Saturday.

The cost for Walker’s security detail jumped from $1.6 million in 2011 to $2.4 million in 2014, WKOW reported. The out-of-state portion of that 2014 tab was $89,454, a number which is expected to rise in 2015 with his run for the GOP presidential nomination.

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, announced a new legislative proposal last week that would require any state elected official who is running for — or even considering running for — higher office to submit a monthly travel form with the Government Accountability Board that explains what costs were incurred and who paid for them. Any campaign costs incurred by taxpayers would have to be reimbursed in a timely manner.

Both Shankland and Hansen cite the Labor Department’s overtime decision as an example of a lack of transparency associated with Walker’s security expenses.

“Instead of waiting for the federal government to step in, the state should have paid these officers the overtime pay they were owed to begin with,” Shankland said.

Analysis: Taxpayer cost for Walker’s breach of contract with trainmaker rises to $50M

Wisconsin taxpayers are on the hook for a modernizing rail transportation project Scott Walker nixed when he took office as governor, breaking a contract that ex-Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration entered into with the Spanish trainmaker Talgo. 

Under terms of a settlement made recently in a lawsuit that Talgo filed against the state, Wisconsin will pay $9.7 million to Talgo in addition to the $42 million it’s already paid the company. The total bill taxpayers must pay for trains the state never received or used is $50 million.

Talgo had originally sued the state for nearly $66 million.

Doyle and the state’s then-Democratic Legislature agreed in 2009 to purchase two new train sets from Talgo. They were to be used for Amtrak’s popular Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago, as well as for a high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison.

In addition to agreeing to purchase the trains, the state had entered into a 20-year maintenance agreement to service the trains, a deal to provide a maintenance facility and an option to purchase two additional train sets.

The deal fell victim to politics, as the new governor sought to burnish his credentials as an “anti-big government” conservative. The rail project was tied to $810 million in federal stimulus money to help pay for it, but Walker rejected the federal funding, depicting it as part of a scheme to foster state dependency on Washington.

Still, Talgo continued building the train sets that the state had agreed to purchase. In January 2012, Talgo notified the state they were ready for delivery, but the Wisconsin Department of Transportation refused to accept them. In November 2012, Talgo canceled its purchase contract with the state.

According to the settlement, Talgo will try to sell the two train sets it built for Wisconsin to another buyer. If successful, the train manufacturer will give 30 percent of the sale price to Wisconsin. 

But Nora Friend, the company’s vice president of public affairs and business development, told Milwaukee Business Journal that it would be difficult to find a buyer. Part of the problem is that the trains were not built to meet federal specifications, because they were paid for by the state, according to MBJ.

“We are hopeful we will find a state that is actually open to doing business and actually honors their contracts,” Friend told the publication.

Politics over people

Walker’s critics say the rejection of federal money and the subsequent loss of jobs and high-speed rail was the first in a series of destructive economic decisions the governor made.

Walker’s public argument at the time was that the project would eventually cost the state millions in maintenance fees.

But advocates for the project claimed it was potentially a vital economic development engine that would create jobs and spur new business growth along the rail line, as it has in other regions that have modernized rail.

In light of the Talgo deal, critics charged Walker with hypocrisy when he sought to borrow more than $1.3 billion for new highway projects in the 2015–17 biennial budget. At the time, Walker argued that the road construction would help create jobs. That’s something Walker has said the government should not be in the business of doing.

Walker also has been criticized for saying yes to the considerable federal funds that the state receives for road construction while turning down funds for other forms of transportation. He enjoys major financial support from roadbuilders and donors whose wealth is tied to the fossil fuel industry, leading to accusations that his transportation decisions are being made on their behalf rather than that of the state’s residents. 

Some of the highway projects Walker supports were found to be unnecessary, according to an independent audit of traffic flow patterns commissioned by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

A court decision earlier this year denied federal funds for a project to widen Highway 23 due to faulty traffic-flow projections from WisDOT. In response, the Republican-led Legislature included an item in the budget requiring WisDOT to reevaluate and justify its methods of traffic projections.

Walker vetoed that item, which watchdog groups said could have saved Wisconsin taxpayers billions of dollars.

Senate leader on budget deal: ‘I don’t know where we’re at’

Republicans who control the Legislature aren’t any closer to reaching a deal on a new state budget, with no agreements yet on how to pay for transportation projects or whether to back a financing plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said yesterday.

“I don’t know where we’re at,” Fitzgerald said before the Senate met to consider a bill that would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Democrats, who condemned the bill for the suffering it will cause women, called it an attempt to distract voters from the GOP’s floundering budget process.

Fitzgerald said there’s no agreement yet on whether to repeal or scale back the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires workers on certain public projects to be paid a wage based on a complex formula that critics say inflates their pay because of an over-reliance on union salaries. Backers of the law warn that overturning it will cause a free-fall in construction wages and quality.

Republican leaders have been trying to reach a deal with GOP Gov. Scott Walker on several unresolved issues in the two-year state budget. The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee has not met since May 29 to finish its work, and no meetings are scheduled.

The current budget runs through the end of June, but state government will continue operating into July under terms of the old budget if Walker has not signed a new one by then. Walker, who had urged lawmakers to get the budget done far ahead of July, has said he will not announce whether he’ll run for president until after he signs the budget.

“The governor gave us a very complicated budget,” said Republican Sen. Rob Cowles, of Allouez. “And complicated budgets don’t get done quickly.”

One of the biggest unresolved issues is how to pay for ongoing transportation projects, including the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee and the expansion of Interstate 39/90 and I-94. Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion over two years and has refused to consider tax or fee increases.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is among some Republicans who support increasing vehicle registration fee hikes in order to lessen the amount of borrowing. But he said yeterday that it is no longer an option, given Walker’s opposition. Instead, Vos said he supports cutting borrowing for roads by at least $800 million, but no exact figure has been settled on.

“We’d like to have a significant reduction,” Vos said at a news conference.

Vos, in a meeting last week with Walker and Fitzgerald, floated the possibility of doing no borrowing — a move that would delay road and bridge work all across the state. Walker said Friday he would agree to that, but it wouldn’t be his preference.

It is unknown how much of the proposed construction is necessary. A federal court recently ruled against U.S. dollars going toward a proposed highway-widening project approved by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The court said the project was based on false data, and land-use advocates have performed studies showing that most of the state’s road-building projects are unneeded.

But Fitzgerald said yesterday that doing no borrowing was unrealistic.

“I think a mix is where we end up, I just don’t know where that ends up,” Fitzgerald said.

Part of the discussion is how much flexibility to give WisDOT in deciding which projects would be affected by a funding reduction, he said.

Both Fitzgerald and Vos have said they don’t have enough votes to repeal the prevailing wage, and instead they’re looking at making restrictions. State Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Cedarburg, said last week that he wouldn’t vote for the budget unless it repeals the prevailing wage for local units of government.

“The caucus is really all over the place,” Fitzgerald said on prevailing wage. “I know they would like to coalesce around something, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Fitzgerald said senators have been talking about the Milwaukee Bucks arena financing deal — which relies on $250 million from taxpayers — and no decision has been made on whether to consider it outside of the budget, a move that could delay its passage.

Vos said Walker was personally calling on lawmakers to push them to support the Bucks deal.

Republicans threaten to nix Scott Walker’s road-building plan

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says Republicans are discussing delaying $1.3 billion worth of highway construction projects across Wisconsin since Gov. Scott Walker is unwilling to raises taxes or fees to pay for it.

Vos’ remarks come in the wake of a federal court ruling that halted U.S. funding for an expansion of Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth. The court found that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation inflated traffic projections used to justify the construction.

Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a land-use watchdog group, has called for a moratorium on all major roadway projects in the state until traffic projections can be audited.  His group has found that the vast majority of highway construction projects in the state are based on overblown data in what is perhaps a strategy to keep construction companies at work.

Highway builders are among the most generous campaign donors to both major parties.

Vos said Wednesday that Republicans are talking about not doing any of the additional borrowing Walker asked for in his budget to pay for roads projects.

Other Republicans have talked about lowering the amount of bonding by between $300 million and $800 million.

Vos says, “Maybe there should be no new bonding. Maybe that’s one option.”

Walker has repeatedly said he won’t approve a gas tax increase or higher vehicle registration fees. Vos has said higher fees should be considered.

Transportation funding is one of the last unsolved pieces of the budget.

News analysis | Scott Walker won’t raise gas taxes, insists on borrowing $1.3 billion for bogus highway projects

Gov. Scott Walker, for the second time in less than a week, said Monday that he won’t agree to raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees to break a legislative impasse over how to pay for highway projects.

“I’m going to keep my campaign promises,” said Walker, who didn’t specifically promise not to raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, but did say he wouldn’t let the overall tax burden go up in his second term.

Most of the highway projects proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation are actually pork for road builders, who are generous campaign donors. A federal judge recently recently ruled that WisDOT used vastly inflated projections to justify a major widening project on Highway 23, where traffic is way below WisDOT’s figures.

Fleecing taxpayers to keep road builders happy is an ongoing pattern in Wisconsin, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He said money for bogus construction projects are the primary reason that local roads in the state are in such disrepair.

When Walker was re-elected to a second term in November, he promised swift action on the budget given a larger Republican majority in the Legislature.

But the process is taking just as long this year as it did in 2013. That year the budget committee finished its work on June 5 and Walker signed it on June 30.

Figuring out how to finance all the unnecessary highway projects is one of the last pieces of the state budget puzzle to fall into place this year. The Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee had hoped to finish its work on Friday, but couldn’t get it done. It has yet to set its next meeting date, which was expected to be its last.

Once the budget clears the committee, it heads to the Senate and Assembly — both controlled by Republicans — for votes later this month. Walker has said he won’t announce a presidential run until after he signs the budget into law.

Republicans lawmakers are balking at Walker’s proposal to borrow $1.3 billion for roads by issuing bonds, but they haven’t been able to come up with an alternative the governor will back.

“We need to come to an agreement with the governor,” Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the budget committee said Friday. “He’s pretty much taken all of our options off the table and we don’t see the bonding out there as a great option.”

Walker didn’t budge Monday.

“I made it clear that while I support a vibrant transportation system, I don’t support raising revenues be it a gas tax or a vehicle registration fee without an offsetting reduction in taxes somewhere else in the budget,” Walker said. “And so far that hasn’t been in any of the proposals.”

Another sticking point in the budget is a financing deal for a new $500 million-plus arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing unidentified sources, reported last week that the deal would include $250 million from taxpayers and $250 million from current and past owners of the Bucks.

Progressives view the arena deal as yet another fleecing of taxpayers, who will shoulder for far more of the costs than its supporters have revealed. Nearly every day, buried costs to taxpayers are uncovered by reporters examining the deals’ details.

Walker said he hopes to have a deal on the arena by the end of the week.

Feds won’t pay for pork-barrel highway project that’s based on inflated WisDOT data

A federal court has halted a major highway expansion due to inflated traffic projections by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, prompting a land-use group to call for an immediate halt to all such projects in the state until they can be proven justified by traffic audits.

The U.S. Eastern District Court upheld the claim of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin that the proposed expansion of Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth was based on overblown traffic forecasts. The ruling makes the project ineligible for federal funding.

According to the group’s executive director Steve Hiniker, actual traffic along the corridor is only one-third of WisDot’s projection. Last year, 1000 Friends studied traffic projections used to justify 11 state highway projects and found that WisDOT’s average traffic over-count was 75 percent.

“Faulty planning at (WisDOT) has likely cost taxpayers billions of dollars in unjustified projects,” Hiniker said in a statement. “This is a huge win for taxpayers.”

Critics of DOT building plans have questioned the need for a number of projects, including the proposed almost billion dollar expansion of the I-94 corridor near Miller Park in Milwaukee. Gov. Scott Walker wants to issue $1.3 billion in bonds to pay for those projects. 

Political leaders nearly always support massive road construction projects, because highway contractors provide them with generous donations. For the public, however, the projects drain funds that would otherwise help municipalities maintain their local roadways, which have become obstacle courses of potholes in recent years.

Republican lawmakers have suggested allowing municipalities to vote for new property taxes in order to maintain their infrastructures, because there’s so little money left over from the gas taxes and registration fees that Wisconsin citizens pay. That money is diverted to unneeded highway expansions, Hiniker says.

According to Hiniker, unneeded highway spending also drains the general fund, reducing the amount of state money available for everything from school funding to fire and police protection.

Hiniker believes the Highway 23 ruling could have a dramatic effect on other highway building plans in the state.

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.”

Sierra Club opposes Wisconsin transportation budget request

The state organization of the Sierra Club opposes the recently released Wisconsin Department of Transportation 2015-17 biennial budget request.

In addition to a “highway-use fee” for new vehicles, the budget recommends a 5 percent increase to the fuel tax, with part coming from a sales tax, meaning it will increase as the price of gas increases.

The proposed budget also diverts transit funding to the General Fund from the now constitutionally segregated Transportation Fund. 

“This budget proposal is an attempt to penalize those that prefer to reduce their dependence on oil by driving less and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles while rewarding the highway building lobby,” said Elizabeth Ward, the Wisconsin group’s conservation programs coordinator. “With huge revenue increases that will go towards unnecessary highway projects, the DOT is ignoring trends that Wisconsinites are driving less and demands that we prefer options to driving.” 

The budget proposal also includes a $50 registration fee for hybrid and electric vehicle drivers.

“The proposed fee discourages innovation and punishes consumers who are trying to do the right thing by investing in cars and trucks that benefit everyone by cleaning up our air, reducing greenhouse gases, and reducing Wisconsin’s dependence on oil. It also hurts American auto-makers like Chevy who are working hard to innovate to meet new fuel efficiency standards.” said Shahla Werner, the director of the Sierra Club–John Muir Chapter.

A statement from the group added that the Sierra Club opposes moving transit funding from the Transportation Fund to the General Fund.

“Although the increases to transit systems are critical, given that systems across Wisconsin are struggling to meet the demand for options and the demand for access to jobs, doctor’s appointments and other needs. However, by funding transit systems through the General Fund, these increases and even the current funding levels are jeopardized by forcing transit to compete with schools, police, fire, and other needs,” said Ward. “Instead, we should be emphasizing funding necessities like local road maintenance and transit systems through the Transportation Fund before taking money from the General Fund.” 

Study: State taxpayers on the hook for $1 billion in useless highway projects due to faulty data

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will waste up to $1 billion on unneeded highway expansions if it continues to rely on inaccurate, outdated highway-use projections, concluded a comprehensive traffic study by a nonpartisan watchdog group. 

WisDOT’s traffic projections are one of the most salient factors considered in approving construction projects and obtaining matching federal dollars. But they are calculated years in advance, and the state is currently experiencing zero growth in the number of vehicle miles driven, according to the group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which monitors land use in the state. 

The group’s study found that much of the data WisDOT used as the basis for more than $3 billion worth of projects contained in the state’s current biennial budget was collected a decade ago.

The group’s researchers compared traffic projections on which 11 upcoming major highway projects are based with today’s vehicle use of those highways. They found that recent traffic counts on all of the projects are unlikely to come close to the projections offered by WisDOT.

In fact, vehicle use on highways earmarked for multimillion-dollar expansion projects has actually fallen in some cases, according to the study.

“For example, WisDOT is projecting a 23-percent increase in traffic on I–94 near (Miller’s Park) by 2040,” Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends, said in a prepared statement. “However, actual traffic counts show that traffic has actually decreased by 8 percent along that stretch of highway. Present trends show that the DOT projections will never be achieved.” 

The situation is much the same on the I–43 corridor between Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties and I-94 in Milwaukee County, where expansion work has already caused horrendous traffic delays. WisDOT projected annual traffic growth of 1.4 percent on I-43 and 0.75 percent on I-94. But the two corridors have experienced declining traffic use — a reduction of 1.5 percent annually on I-43 and 0.88 percent annually on I-94.

Those declines in highway use reflect a statewide pattern of declining vehicle miles driven. Following the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s, traffic skyrocketed. But in recent years, vehicle miles driven have flattened out.

Between 1981 and 1991, miles driven in Wisconsin grew by a rate of 35 percent. In contrast, the growth rate from 2003 to 2013 was zero.

Hiniker said his group is not calling for a moratorium in highway construction, but rather a method of planning that’s based on current usage and updated projections. In some cases, he said, the state is planning projects based on data that projects volumes that are 100 times greater than actual traffic usage.

“Once a project is approved based on traffic projections, (WisDOT) never revisits (the numbers),” Hiniker said. “(WisDOT) says, ‘It was authorized, we have to build it.’ We’re saying, ‘If you know trends have changed, go back and reevaluate it.’ We’re asking WisDOT to change the way they plan projects. We want to make sure they’re not wasting money.”

Relative to the previous trends, Wisconsin has experienced a 27 percent decline in miles driven over the past decade, according to 1000 Friends. If the growth rate of previous decades had continued, Wisconsinites would currently drive an average of 11,300 miles annually instead of the current average of 9,400.

The difference between previous growth rates in highway usages and actual highway use over the past decade is stark: If previous rates of increase had continued, Wisconsinites would have driven 16 billion more miles than they did in 2013. That’s because the average Wisconsinite drives 500 fewer miles per year today than in 2004.

Diverted funds

Critics such as 1000 Friends and conservationists say lawmakers must stop wasting money on unneeded highway expansions at a time when the state faces a budget deficit, an inadequate workforce due to massive cuts in education (the most of any state in the nation) and underfunded police and fire departments.

Perhaps most troubling to Wisconsin’s cities, WisDOT diverts money that would otherwise go to maintaining heavily trafficked city roads to build and expand underutilized highways.

While conservative Wisconsin voters are furious over paying taxes that support government spending on food stamps, they’re unaware of the taxpayer money that’s wasted on needless highway spending — most of which goes to politically connected roadbuilders who contribute large sums to both Republican and Democratic officeholders. 

In the fiscal year 2011, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provided about $1.1 billion in food benefits to a monthly average of 801,073 people in Wisconsin. That’s only slightly more than the amount of money Wisconsin will waste on unneeded highway projects over the next two years if WisDOT continues to use inaccurate highway use projections.

Drivers assume that 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 to fix the neighborhood pothole that threw your car out of alignment in April.

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.

The only way Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can obtain increased funding for road repairs is by raising property taxes. But politics and the state’s lagging economy make that option a non-starter. Instead, cities must choose between filling in van-eating sinkholes and maintaining adequate police and fire departments, according to city halls across the state.

During the 1980s, local municipalities asked the Legislature for permission to raise their own money to pay for road resurfacing and other such infrastructure repairs, according to Hiniker. But lawmakers at the time said no, instead promising to reimburse cities and towns for 85 percent of such costs through the state’s segregated Transportation Fund. 

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

For instance, the expansion of I-94 from Milwaukee to Kenosha cost $2.2 billion, but only $200 million of that traffic nightmare of a project was classified as new construction. All the rest of the cost fell into the category of repair and maintenance, because it was used for such work as widening existing overpasses in order to widen the road.

Slighting cities

WisDOT uses a shared-revenue formula that’s almost impenetrably complicated and gives sprawling rural areas a funding advantage over heavily trafficked urban locations, according to Hiniker. Dennis Yaccarino, a budget analyst for the City of Milwaukee, told WiG last spring that the formula slights Wisconsin cities, particularly Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.

Transit analysts believe huge political contributions made by road builders play a central role in maintaining a planning process that favors large, expensive highway projects over small ones. But it’s nearly impossible to figure out how much the state’s two dozen or so road builders, each of whom is said to have an unofficial “turf,” give to lawmakers in each election cycle. That’s partly due to rules that allow for unlimited anonymous donations to third-party campaign activity and partly due to the time-honored practice of bundling donations or making them under the names of friends or family members.

Hiniker hopes that shedding light on WisDOT’s faulty, politically motivated method of planning highway projects will bring about change. This is more important now than ever, he said, due to dwindling revenue and rapidly changing demographics. Many young people favor mass transit, he said, while seniors lose their ability to drive safely.

Wisconsin is one of the nation’s grayest states, and it’s projected to become much grayer.

“There are new projection numbers that show the population increase in 2040 is going to be about 800,000 people in Wisconsin — and almost 95 percent of them will be over 65,” Hiniker said. “The working-age population is not projected to change at all. So where are all the drivers who are projected to be driving?”