Jan 9, 201812:18 PMTransportation Matters
with Craig Thompson
2017 was not a great year for transportation funding in Wisconsin
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Now that 2017 is in the rearview mirror, it is time to look back on what was a wild ride when it came to transportation funding in the state of Wisconsin. Google Maps could not possibly have mapped this route.
The year began with a state audit of the Department of Transportation, which documented that Wisconsin state highway conditions are the worst in the Midwest — and not by a little bit. Local governments across Wisconsin chimed in to remind anyone who would listen that local roads were in just as bad or worse condition than the state’s highways.
Gov. Scott Walker traveled to northern Wisconsin and told a group in Ashland that while he would not propose raising more money for transportation overall, that local governments would get an increase in funding. When asked how he could accomplish this he responded, “We are certainly not doing any in the Milwaukee area; we are putting all our money in major increases for county municipal roads and bridges, and the largest amount we have ever put into state highway rehab.”
This stood in stark contrast to a document the Assembly Republicans had put out previously titled “No Easy Answers.” In this document, they contend the entire system is important and underfunded. They concluded by asking, “And it is up to us to decide what road we will take: Will we be penny wise and pound foolish, punting the problem to future legislatures, or will we work on responsible solutions that don’t leave our kids and grandkids holding the bag?” (Spoiler alert: It ends up being the former of those two options.)
The battle lines had been drawn. In early February, Gov. Walker introduced his budget, which did provide some sorely needed increases in road aids to local government, while reducing the base funding for the interstates in Southeast Wisconsin. No ongoing revenue increases were proposed.
Later that month, U.S. News & World Report added another ingredient to the cauldron when it released its “Best States” rankings. This report concluded the quality of Wisconsin’s roads was 49th in the entire country.
Dueling press conferences, tweets, and press releases ensued. Proposals and counter proposals were floated and shot down before they cleared the dome of the Capitol. In the end, the entire state budget was delayed by almost three months due largely to this single issue.
In mid-September, the legislature finally capitulated on the central difference in the debate. There would be no significant, ongoing revenue increases.
While the transportation debate raged, another curve was added to this already serpentine road. The announcement of Foxconn locating in Southeast Wisconsin was heralded as a “game changer.” As this announcement did cause Gov. Walker to do a 180 on his pledge from earlier in the year of “not doing any in the Milwaukee area,” it certainly did change the game.