Mar 30, 201501:31 PMTransportation Matters
with Debby Jackson
Madison and D.C. not so different on transportation policy, unfortunately
(page 1 of 2)
The U.S. Capitol building and the Wisconsin State Capitol look very similar. The State Capitol is 284 feet, 5 inches tall from the ground floor to the top of the statue on the dome, making it 3 feet shorter than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the transportation policies emanating from these magnificent buildings are becoming eerily similar as well — varying more in size than substance.
Politicians at both levels have grown fond of paying for the upkeep of our aging transportation systems with something other than traditional user fees. At the federal level, this has taken the form of deficit spending. In Wisconsin, it has taken the form of bonding.
The state and federal gas taxes are flat fees per gallon. If these traditional user fees are not adjusted, they don’t move with the growth in wages and cost of living like income, sales, or property taxes do. The feds haven’t adjusted the federal user fee in almost 25 years, and in Wisconsin, it has been a decade.
During that time, we have continued to fund the upkeep of our current system as well as the reconstruction of major arteries. In Wisconsin, we rebuilt the Marquette Interchange and are in the midst of other generational projects like the Zoo Interchange. Granted, funding to locals has eroded and projects have been delayed, but there has still been more done than the incoming revenue would have supported.
This has made taxpayers skeptical about the need to adjust the user fee.
At the federal level, we have authorized transportation budgets that are propped up with transfers from the general fund (aka deficit spending) to the tune of more than 30% of the overall transportation budget. In Wisconsin, we have fallen back on borrowing without adjusting the revenue source to pay the debt service. As a result, debt service is becoming the Pac-Man of the state transportation budget.
This problem is not lost on all of our state and federal officials. As conservative state Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) pointed out at a recent Joint Finance Committee briefing, the worst part about this practice is it “masks the underlying problem.” U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Appleton), who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has pointed out that continuing to kick the can down the road amounts to a tax increase. It’s just a tax increase on people who are currently too young to vote.
Wisconsin is, of course, beginning its budget debate for the next biennium. Gov. Walker proposed increasing bonding for transportation another 30% above Wisconsin’s already high level of transportation bonding. Legislators have expressed concern about this approach, but no alternatives have been proposed yet.