Punting on transportation funding leads state down rough road
The state budget was finally signed into law on Sept. 21. The spirited debate over how to solve Wisconsin's well-documented transportation funding shortfall held up passage for nearly three months. After all that time, consensus eluded our state elected officials once again. It took less than 10 days after enactment of the budget, however, for the first transportation casualty to surface.
On Sept. 29, Department of Transportation Secretary David Ross wrote the federal government and asked them to rescind their authorization to rebuild the 3.5-mile stretch of I-94 in front of Miller Park, known as the East-West Corridor. This boggles the mind.
Never mind the state and the federal government have considered this project one of the “highest priorities.” Never mind that it is almost 60 years old and needs replacement. Never mind that we have invested large sums of taxpayer dollars to rebuild the Marquette and Zoo Interchanges on each end of this corridor, only to walk away from the part in the middle. Never mind that we have already spent over $20 million in engineering costs to garner federal approval. Never mind the years of inconvenience we all endured to complete the two interchanges. Never mind the companies that move goods through this corridor that have been begging for leadership.
Canceling the East-West project may be the posterchild for this budget’s failure to address our transportation funding problems, but it will be far from the only poor result.
This budget didn’t just punt when it came to transportation. We gave away significant yardage and then punted. When all is said and done, this budget cut funding for the state highway program by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The fund that is designed to keep our existing state highways in good condition — called the Highway Rehabilitation Program — was reduced by about $80 million. This may be the most troubling because it comes on the heels of a state legislative audit that found the condition of state trunk highways in Wisconsin to be the worst in the Midwest by a gaping margin. Those that thought pulling the plug on funding our ongoing freeway projects would mean more money for fixing the highways we currently have will be sadly disappointed.
There were three bright spots in an otherwise dismal transportation budget. First, local governments received an increase in state aid for local roads and bridges. There is a long way to go, but this began to reverse a trend of forcing more costs on to the locals. Second, for the first time in years, we did not issue more new debt than we can afford. Third, the often-delayed stretch of I-94 in Racine County will finally get moving again as part of the separate Foxconn legislation. The project will be funded with about $250 million in new bonds with the debt service paid out of the state’s general fund.
The Foxconn package made one point crystal clear for anybody who had missed it: Access to a high-functioning freeway system is a necessity, not a want. Without that part of the package there’s no Foxconn.
Fortunately, the legislature figured out a way to get that done. What should be even clearer is that we need a Foxconn-like treatment for our existing businesses in Wisconsin. They deserve far better than what they just got in the transportation budget.
We all do.
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