Thursday, April 17, 2014

WisDOT's Fiscal 'Crises' - - 10 Years, Little Change

I'd written here about WisDOT's PR campaigning for more public money and wringing of hands over a so-called revenue 'crisis.'

While higher gas taxes and other road-building financing schemes are back on the table - - Walker will likely put off a decision until after the November election - -  there is one sure-fired solution not under consideration:

Reining in over-spending on costly, glitzy new projects, like the revenue-sucking, perpetual-roadway spree known as the Southeastern Wisconsin Free[Sic]way System expansion.

And I offer for some depressing perspective a piece I'd written for the Capital Times ten years ago to the day.

While the state covered some increased highway costs in the interim through borrowings and other non-gas-tax maneuvers, the truth is that little has changed in ten years when it comes to Wisconsin's road-building binge at the expense of transit and local road aid.

True today; true back then, as I noted in 2004:

"Channeling a disproportionate share of state and federal transportation funding to freeway expansion could offset some increases in the gas tax. But that would threaten other highway projects, trim state aid to mass transit, and cut local road repair budgets throughout the state. That would be really unpopular in Madison or Ashland, Green Bay or Wausau."
Also not changing: the road-building lobby's political immunity to elections, partisan shifts, economic downturns, reduced driving and awareness of climate change.

The lobby's pervasive power in the State Capitol is permanent.


DATE: Saturday, April 17, 2004



BYLINE:  James Rowen


    April 1 brought us the promise of spring, some April Fool's pranks, and Wisconsin's automatic annual hike in the state gas tax.

    Already saddled with the second-highest tax-per-gallon state gas tax in the United States, consumers at the pumps here began paying another six-tenths of a cent on April 1. 

That raised the tax to 29.1 cents, plus a separate three cents per gallon for environmental cleanup. With gas prices heading toward $2 a gallon, motorists were complaining to reporters that their SUV fill-ups were headed toward $60 or more.

    Little comfort that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which gets to spend a lot of that money, reminds us at its Web site that "while indexing usually increases the gas tax rate slightly, the difference is minor when compared to frequent price jumps at the gas pump."

    Memo to WisDOT: That doesn't make us feel better. And here are two additional things to keep in mind about why Wisconsin's gas tax is headed higher and higher, WisDOT spin notwithstanding.

    First: The gas tax was 16.5 cents a gallon, close to half what it is today, when so-called indexing began in 1985. Legislators wanted to build more roads and keep contribution-happy road contractors satisfied, but didn't want to go on record raising taxes. 

So the good men and women in the Assembly and Senate put the increase on autopilot. Now tied to inflation, it kicks in every April 1, with no messy votes showing up in the opponents' campaign attack ads.

    Second, and more importantly: Motorists annoyed at the weasely way a simple six-tenths of a cent increase per gallon got rolled into the current tax may go into full-blown cardiac arrest. That's because a multibillion-dollar freeway expansion plan is under study for southeast Wisconsin by WisDOT, and gas taxes will have to skyrocket to pay for it.

    Hotly debated in Milwaukee and its surrounding counties, the plan has not received much publicity out-state even though motorists across Wisconsin will dig deeply to pay for it.

    The plan calls for an estimated $6.25 billion to be poured into new lanes in the next 20 to 30 years. That's a very big figure -- big enough to build 16 Miller Park stadiums at $400 million each, for instance.

    The plan will do two things: Rebuild the complex Marquette Interchange in downtown Milwaukee and add about 120 miles of new freeway lanes next to existing lanes on major roads, like I-94 and I-43 in Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Waukesha, Walworth, Washington and Ozaukee counties. Among the expenses: acquiring more than 600 acres, tearing down 201 homes and 28 businesses, and compensating the owners.

    The plan was approved by an unelected body, the seven-county Southeastern Regional Planning Commission, and is now under review by WisDOT.

    About $750 million of the total cost -- or about 12 percent -- has been set aside for the reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange, from 2004 to 2008. That leaves about $5.5 billion not funded, or roughly $200 million annually for about 25 years to complete the rest of the plan. And like all big-ticket estimates, the bottom line is going to rise.

    You'd think a state that just agonized over a $3.2 billion operating budget deficit wouldn't embark on a plan of any kind that is $5 billion in the hole at the outset, but work is already under way on the Marquette Interchange.

    The nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has said the freeway expansion plan is among the reasons why Wisconsin's overall highway building plan through 2020 is more than $5 billion underfunded. But so far, few at the state level have taken the WTA's finding to heart. And don't expect those automatic April 1 increases to pay for the freeway expansion plan. Those annual increases cover ongoing and inflationary costs, not a multibillion-dollar freeway expansion.

    A penny added to the already-steep gas tax raises about $30 million, so if $200 million in fresh highway dollars are needed, the southeast Wisconsin freeway expansion will require a fresh six or seven cents -- at least 20 percent to the per-gallon gas tax -- if WisDOT moves the plan forward.

    It is possible these gas tax increases could be minimized by substituting an increase in vehicle registration fees -- but motorists wouldn't like that, either.

    Channeling a disproportionate share of state and federal transportation funding to freeway expansion could offset some increases in the gas tax. But that would threaten other highway projects, trim state aid to mass transit, and cut local road repair budgets throughout the state. That would be really unpopular in Madison or Ashland, Green Bay or Wausau.

    * Environmentalists and urban revivalists in Milwaukee -- led for years by now-ex-Mayor John Norquist -- oppose freeway expansion because it's too expensive and will pave precious city real estate and accelerate the region's already severe suburban sprawl.

    Republican legislative leaders -- including many who champion tax freezes and less government spending -- have long supported raising the gas tax. Along with the road builders, Republicans are leading the fight for freeway expansion. So don't be surprised when the gas tax is ramped up steadily. Six-tenths of a cent will look like chicken feed.


Anonymous said...

Gas tax increases are the result of less taxes being paid as a result of CAFE standards. You buy less, you pay less. Perhaps a wheel tax on bicycleists is in order.

Gareth said...

Thinking outside the box: How about a shoe tax? There are plenty of moochers out there who walk rather than burn fossil fuels. I'm one of them. This would make just as much sense as a special tax on hybrid or electric cars, which some bagger controlled states are pursuing. And then there's those damn bicyclists!

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Gas tax increases are the result of less taxes being paid as a result of CAFE standards

This seems to be 35 different kinds of bullshit.

Anonymous said...

How about requiring the road builders to warrant their work product, the roads and highways, so they have to last 20 or more years? If the roads lasted longer they would become much cheaper and it can be done, but not with substandard materials and workmanship.

Anonymous said...

We should raise the license plate fee to replace the gas tax. I think $1000 per year would be a good start to get people to ride trains and buses. Maybe blue collar factory jobs will move back into Milwaukee?