Wisconsin needs to fix its transportation funding problems

Wisconsin faces a daunting challenge when it comes to meeting the expanding needs of its transportation network. State and local roads, bridges, railways, harbors, airports, and transit facilities are getting older and more congested. The problem is most acute in the heart of Wisconsin cities and villages, where the “first and last mile” connecting the state’s manufacturing and commercial enterprises to the world economy exists.

Numerous studies have shown that the state’s decades-old transportation funding model is not keeping pace with current or future needs. A narrow and declining revenue base — primarily motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees — funds the transportation network and its maintenance needs, including transportation aids to local governments. These two sources of revenue have remained flat or diminished over the years. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the funding challenge at the local level is worse than flat. The Alliance reports that per capita spending on local roads has declined sharply since 1998, from $275 to $227 — a drop of more than 17%.

Meanwhile, the cost of asphalt and other costs of construction have risen much faster than the rate of inflation.

In recent years the state has chosen to address the problem with increased borrowing, a path that is unsustainable over the long term. The decision to issue bonds to address the loss of revenues has resulted in a growing percentage of the fund being devoted to debt service payments. If the state continues on this path, debt service will consume one-quarter of all state transportation revenues by FY 2023.

The consequences of taking no action are bad for municipalities and the people and businesses they serve. About 30% of the state’s transportation fund is distributed to local governments through general transportation aids, mass transit operating assistance, and other programs. As funding for those programs is reduced, local property taxes will continue to be used to bridge the gap. Yet the state has tightly capped property taxes and using more on streets and other transportation needs will require a shift from other critical services, like police and fire.

Without additional funding for these programs, municipalities will lose the ability over time to maintain streets and other transportation infrastructure at the level necessary to attract and retain businesses and residents. 

Without additional transit funding, routes will be cut and fares will increase; aging buses and bus facilities will become unsafe or go out of service; and the state’s transit-dependent population will be isolated in their homes, with people unable to get to jobs or school.

Without increased harbor investment, the state’s ability to attract and retain industries that rely on efficient freight movement will be negatively impacted by decaying and inefficient harbor infrastructure and a lack of coordinated harbor plans.

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A safe, efficient, and well-maintained transportation system, including transit and alternative modes like bicycling, is critical to Wisconsin’s economic prosperity and quality of life. For that reason, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities is participating in the Just Fix It campaign organized by the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association. The goal of the campaign is to educate the public and to convince legislators that now is the time to enact an adequate, equitable, and sustainable transportation funding system. The League is urging city and village officials to join the Just Fix It campaign by signing up online at www.tdawisconsin.org/just-fix-it-wisconsin.

I encourage all citizens of Wisconsin to become better educated about our state’s transportation system and its funding needs. A good place to start is the “Filling Potholes” report commissioned by the Local Government Institute of Wisconsin, which is posted online at www.localgovinstitute.org/potholes. We all have a stake in maintaining a safe, efficient, and well-maintained transportation network. 

Wisconsin needs to fix its transportation funding problems now, not later, and we need your help to accomplish this important goal.

Jerry Deschane is executive director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

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