Leadership isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either

Lawmakers in Wisconsin are facing their moment of truth when it comes to the transportation budget. The issue has been framed about as clearly as it can be by the media, and the lawmakers themselves.

Most have said some version of the following three things: 1) Wisconsin’s transportation network is a key to an economy that is dominated by manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, and timber; 2) There are significant areas of our transportation system that need attention; and 3) The current path Wisconsin is on in terms of funding transportation cannot be sustained.

With that as a backdrop, legislators from both parties have been uniformly cool to the Walker administration’s transportation budget proposal. The proposal would increase our reliance on borrowing, without adjusting any revenue mechanisms to pay off the increased amount of debt. As a result, debt service would eat up about one quarter of our transportation revenues by the end of this budget period.

Over the next several weeks, legislators are going to have to decide what they are going to do about this and several other big-ticket items. I believe there are seven things that should be kept in mind as they deliberate the transportation portion of the budget.

  1. Wisconsin has the lowest cost to drive in the Midwest. Cost to drive = what we pay in gas tax and vehicle registration fees combined.
  2. Wisconsin is very efficient in spending our transportation user fees. According to a Midwest Economic Policy Institute study, Wisconsin has the lowest construction cost per mile in the Midwest and the lowest maintenance cost per mile as well.
  3. Sidestepping the issue is costing us. Debt service has become the fastest growing line item in Wisconsin’s transportation budget.
  4. Thanks to the overwhelming majority of voters in Wisconsin, as of last November the user fees that we pay are now constitutionally protected. This means the money has to be spent repairing and maintaining our transportation system.
  5. Greater fuel efficiency has resulted in lower gas taxes as well. The average driver of a newer car in Wisconsin is paying less in user fees today than they were 10 years ago.
  6. Wisconsin’s gas tax was last adjusted in 2006.
  7. Twenty-one percent of our major roads in Wisconsin are in “poor” condition, and 1,200 bridges are structurally deficient. Look for those numbers to continue to rise, absent adjustments to our user fees.

I understand leading isn’t easy. But it isn’t impossible either. In February, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed a 10-cent gas tax increase that was sent to him by a divided legislature, saying it wasn’t easy but it was necessary. In March, Governor Dennis Daugaard, of South Dakota, signed a six-cent gas tax increase that was passed by a supermajority of the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, saying, “I am grateful for the courage of the legislators who, while reluctant to raise taxes, realized that in some situations we need to do what we need to do to protect our infrastructure.”

This is happening all across the country. People are deciding that it makes more sense to pay a few dollars more per month now, rather than having road projects drag on even longer or essential projects deferred. Simply putting it all on credit card isn’t selling anymore either. In the most recent Wisconsin Survey poll conducted by St. Norbert College, 33% of the respondents said they preferred to solve our transportation issues by bonding more, while 48% opted to increase fees.

It’s now in the hands of the legislature. Will they have the stomach to make some reasonably tough decisions today, or will they put those decisions off again for tomorrow? We will find out in the upcoming weeks.

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