Life (and transportation) beyond the pandemic

Last year was, in some ways, the lost year. While I and Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin (TDA) staff were able to work from home and make significant progress on the association’s priorities, I will remember 2020 more for what I could not do during the year than for what I did. It may be the same for you. There is simply no replacing a visit with your 80-year-old mom, your son’s sixth-grade band concert, or a hot yoga class that destresses your day. It was a challenging year.

But today, the sun is out and the weather is warming. More than half of adults 65 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The first doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are being distributed. We are not in the clear yet but it feels like we are turning the corner.

So, I am giddy at the prospect of some return to my normal activities. I have made a list of places I want to visit in the next couple of years with my kids. I call this my catch-up list because I know I have a limited number of years before my young adult children will have too many commitments to travel with their mom. It is not just the idea of far-off places that I have missed; it is the small things. I have a list for that too.

This pent-up demand will hopefully help Wisconsin’s economy and small businesses begin to recover as we head into the fall of this year and beyond. To bolster businesses and industries and get people back to work, Wisconsin will also need to invest in the infrastructure that supports this economic activity, including transportation.

Transportation infrastructure is vital to Wisconsin’s economy, which has at its core manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. Historically, about 1.4 million Wisconsinites — approximately 45% of the workforce — are employed in industries like tourism, retail sales, agriculture, logistics, and manufacturing. These industries are entirely dependent on the state’s transportation network.

Transportation investment not only sustains and creates good-paying construction and industry jobs but also supports tens of thousands of full-time jobs across all sectors of the state’s economy. Moreover, system improvements enhance economic competitiveness and development for decades by providing safe, efficient access to jobs, services, materials, and markets.

Wisconsin finally passed a transportation budget in 2019 that slows the decline of system conditions. The 2019–21 state budget’s increased investment was an essential first step toward a longer-term transportation funding solution.

The efforts to combat the pandemic have impacted transportation revenue — primarily the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration and titling fees — and it could take a few years to get back to 2019 levels. It would be unfortunate if the health crisis led Wisconsin to lose the progress made in the 2019–21 budget. After decades of disinvestment, the state and local governments have catch-up lists of their own.

The governor’s transportation budget proposal generally maintains the overall 2019–21 biennium level with a moderate bonding increase to offset pandemic-induced state transportation revenue losses. Given the historically low bonding level in the 2019–21 budget, low interest rates, and the need to get Wisconsin’s economy moving and address documented system needs, a reasonable bonding increase is better than an alternative that means delayed projects, faster declining system conditions, and fewer jobs.

As our state races to vaccinate us all, many of our fellow Wisconsinites face a struggle to remake their careers, their businesses, and their daily routines. It is understandable that tackling the next steps to a longer-term transportation funding solution might not seem to be a pressing issue right now. Also, it is possible federal efforts — a multiyear surface transportation reauthorization and other infrastructure investment — will help. However, we cannot wait too long for answers. Over time, the purchasing power of the state’s transportation revenue sources declines, and the vehicles in Wisconsin’s fleet become more fuel efficient and alternatively fueled. If Wisconsin is to rebuild, rebound, and move forward, we must maintain the 2019–21 budget’s progress and build on it.

And with the CDC’s new guidance about people fully vaccinated against COVID-19, I hope to take an item off my list soon: hug mom. Progress.

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