Now that 2017 is in the rear-view mirror, it is time to look back on what was a wild ride when it came to transportation funding in Wisconsin. Google Maps could not possibly have mapped this route.
The year began with a state audit of the Department of Transportation, which documented that Wisconsin state highway conditions are the worst in the Midwest. And not by a little bit. Local governments across Wisconsin chimed in to remind anyone who would listen that local roads were in just as bad or worse condition than the state’s highways.
Gov. Scott Walker traveled to northern Wisconsin and told a group in Ashland that while he would not propose raising more money for transportation overall, local governments would get an increase in funding. When asked how he could accomplish this, he responded, “We are certainly not doing any in the Milwaukee area, we are putting all our money in major increases for county municipal roads and bridges, and the largest amount we have ever put into state highway rehab.”
This stood in stark contrast to a document the Assembly Republicans had put out previously, titled “No Easy Answers.” In this document, they contend the entire system is important and underfunded. They concluded by asking, “And it is up to us to decide what road we will take: Will we be penny-wise and pound-foolish, punting the problem to future legislatures, or will we work on responsible solutions that don’t leave our kids and grandkids holding the bag?” (Spoiler alert: It ends up being the former of those two options.)
The battle lines had been drawn. In early February, Walker introduced his budget, which did provide some sorely needed increases in road aid to local government while reducing the base funding for the interstates in southeast Wisconsin. No ongoing revenue increases were proposed.
Later that month, U.S. News and World Report added another ingredient to the cauldron when they released their Best States rankings. This report concluded the quality of Wisconsin’s roads was 49th in the entire country.
Dueling press conferences, tweets and press releases ensued. Proposals and counter-proposals were floated and shot down before they cleared the dome of the Capitol. In the end, the entire state budget was delayed by almost three months due largely to this single issue.
In mid-September, the Legislature finally capitulated on the central difference in the debate. There would be no significant, ongoing revenue increases.
But while the transportation debate raged, another curve was added to this already serpentine road. The announcement of Foxconn locating in southeast Wisconsin was heralded as a “game changer.” As this announcement did cause Walker to do a 180 on his pledge from earlier in the year, “not doing any in the Milwaukee area,” it certainly did change the game.
The legislation paving the way for the Foxconn deal included $252 million of bonding out of the state’s general fund and a request for another $250 million from the feds. This revelation that functioning interstates are important to landing big businesses may have come a bit late, however. The stretch of I-94 between Kenosha and Milwaukee was supposed to have been completed years ago. But now we had to admit in our plea to the feds for money that without their several hundreds of millions, Wisconsin will not be able to complete that segment until 2032.
As for the rest of the state? Well, those much-heralded increases to locals will help, but for many communities, the boost in General Transportation Aids won’t even get them back to the funding they were receiving in 2011 if adjusted for inflation. This is made clear by the growing number of municipalities turning to wheel taxes.
And the “largest amount we have ever put into state highway rehab” prognostication? Well, the state highway rehabilitation program was ultimately reduced by $80 million in this budget. And to add salt to the wound, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently pointed out that after passage of the budget, WisDOT is now looking to redirect more than $130 million of highway rehabilitation dollars to build or expand local roads as part of the Foxconn development.
In fact, the Highway Improvement Program, which includes highway rehabilitation, major highway development and southeast interstates, is at the lowest level since the 2005-07 budget.
If all of this is leaving you feeling like many do on the morning of Jan. 1 — meaning your head is spinning — you are not alone.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos chose to end 2017 reminding his colleagues that, “if we want to grow the economy, let’s make the transportation fund viable.”
Let’s hope he will have more luck in the coming years making that New Year’s resolution stick.
Craig Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin in Madison.