Are our highways too big to fix?
Too big to fail was a buzz phrase that we all became too familiar with about a decade ago. It is, of course, referring to the financial crisis of the late 2000s when the U.S. government disbursed $700 billion to save large companies under the theory that they were so vital to the U.S. economy that it would be disastrous if they went bankrupt.
In Wisconsin we seem to have a new concept being floated by some: Too big to fix. Under this theory, Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure has fallen into such serious disrepair that it would require a tax increase so massive as to throw a wet blanket on the economy. So the wiser course, according to this theory, is to do nothing. Because taking the third roughest roads in the country and letting them deteriorate further will have no impact on the economy …
While I’m not weighing in on the bailouts of the financial industry, I will say that I believe this second theory is dubious, at best … oh, come on. We call it like it is these days, right? It’s ridiculous.
Some lawmakers who have opposed raising any new revenue to try to begin addressing our yawning transportation hole had the Legislative Fiscal Bureau run a scenario of needs in which we would have to increase the state gas tax 28 cents. That would be a 91% increase over our current 30.9 cent per gallon gas tax. If that made you gulp then it had its intended effect. Of course, this is based on a set of assumptions that were designed to elicit a number that would cause that involuntary reaction in your throat.
It would take far too long to explain the fully loaded assumptions that were cobbled together to generate this number, but it suffices to say they looked to reduce bonding to zero and simultaneously move forward on everything. Most people who are actually searching for answers would agree there is a prudent ratio of bonding to revenue for long-term capital projects like rebuilding our interstates and other thoroughfares. What we can’t do is rely on bonding as a surrogate for funding as we have in the past. This practice has landed us in a place where debt service is eating up nearly a quarter of all state transportation revenue coming in.
They also assume finding zero savings through efficiencies. This is where we get into an either/or discussion that makes some of us wonder if we can walk and chew gum at the same time. The discussion seems to be either we can solve our entire problem by finding efficiencies or conversely the problem is sooo big we have to tax ourselves to oblivion.
When was it that we stopped being problem solvers? Yes, our situation in Wisconsin has gotten to a point where it is not going to be easy or even possible to fix overnight. Here’s an idea: how about we try to lessen the gap by finding every single efficiency that we can, we prioritize, we raise some additional sustainable revenue, and we bond at levels that are reasonable based on that new level of revenue?
These same people had another scenario run, by the way. They took the budget level that the governor is currently considering — which includes a $450 million cut to our aging state highway system — and assumed no bonding. Under this scenario the gas tax would have to be increased by 7.2 cents per gallon to even maintain this reduced level of funding. A 20% increase in the current gas tax. The conclusion we should draw from this according to these lawmakers? “We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.”
We all rely on a well-maintained transportation system. There are a great many responsible people who want to do what is best for the taxpayers, the motoring public, and our agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing industries that especially rely on that system. I would contend these people constitute a majority of our elected officials. My hope is that they have the fortitude to continue to search for a path forward that is sensible, sustainable, and balanced, despite the din of nonsense that surrounds them.
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