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The Wisconsin GOP cabal that was former Governor Scott Walker plus the continuing Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald kept kicking the can down the road on funding for highway repairs and construction. In their last two budgets, hewing to their no tax increase mantras, instead of raising the gasoline tax or auto registration fees…they borrowed money to balance the state’s Department of Transportation budget. Seems like a pretty odd way to do things for fiscal conservatives…millions of dollars in borrowing.
Now long time readers will remember that I have been a proponent of raising the gasoline tax to cover the expenses of highway and roadway maintenance. Particularly as gasoline prices have hit historic lows in Wisconsin. And during his campaign, Democratic Governor Tony Evers stated that everything was on the table to solve the highway funding crisis…including raising the gas tax and possibly tolling.
And the governor has put together a task force to review highway funding and possibly make suggestions for the next biennial budget. Wouldn’t that appropriate?
Well, the GOP leadership brain trust has decided to throw their weight behind tolling. They’ve had years to solve the issue and they have come up with tolling? First of all, they essentially had all of those years of the Walker era to develop tolling options. So this rather sounds like a 2019 version of the lame duck legislation…do anything possible to poke the Democratic governor in the eye with a GOP stick.
Tolling is an incredibly stupid idea. It will take years to implement. It can’t currently be done on federal highways without changes in legislation out of Washington. We have very few state highways that are worthy of a toll. Fewer major bridges that could be tolled. It would take years of engineering (cost) followed by property acquisition (cost) and then construction of toll plazas, booths and card readers (cost) (assuming we go with a pass system) and software/network/infrastructure to make it run (cost) (and we know how well state IT projects go). And I bet we don’t even have a good handle on how much potential revenue tolling would produce (yes I know it depends how many miles we can toll and how much we think we can charge). And it probably won’t pay for anything besides itself, even if it manages to do that. Illinois is always complaining about not having enough funds to maintain their tollways just before raising the tolls.
But why can’t we raise the gas tax? Well it won’t raise enough money! And tolling will (see previous paragraph)?
At that forum (Wisconsin Counties Association), Fitzgerald said raising the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon — from 32.9 cents to 42.9 cents — wouldn’t raise enough to fix the state’s roads. An increase of that size would funnel more than $330 million a year into transportation.
Only $330 million…per year! Think of that (sarcasm) That’s about what the state borrowed in the last biennial budget for the DOT. So we would have enough to offset similar future borrowing PLUS another $300 million or so in the next budget. And why are we talking 10 cents out of hand? Maybe 12 or 15? What do we need to keep state routes from crumbling back to dust?
So what is the advantage of raising the gas tax? It doesn’t cost much to implement. We already have a gas tax. We already have a collection mechanism in place. We already have years of metrics on the revenue stream for rate changes. Pass an increase…set a date…change the rate metrics in the system(s)…and off you go.
Downsides? We still have the growing population of electric and hybrids that don’t pay gas taxes at the equivalent rate as traditional gas powered vehicles. We have the continued improvement in fuel efficiency that reduces gas tax revenues. But those are things that the governor’s task force can review and suggest workarounds for future budget periods.
There’s no time like the present to get this done. Tax could increase with the new budget. Putting it off longer just delays transportation revenue improvements and allows further deterioration of state roadways. And the longer we put off repairs and maintenance…the more expensive it gets.
(so who’s wallet is whispering in Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald’s ear…saying tolling is the way to go?)
Take the two minutes to read the entire article at the link above. But here are a couple of excerpts that just make you wonder:
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau described placing tolls around the state as a way to fix the state’s highways and bridges.
“You can do it on bridges. You can do it in an awful lot of places. So I think there’s a lot more flexibility (on where tolls can be placed) and that’s why we wanted this study,” Vos said.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh said he wants more money for roads, but considers tolling the worst way to do it.
He questioned the Republicans’ sincerity, saying it would take years to implement tolls and much of the money would go toward operating the tolls instead of building roads.
“That’s not a solution,” Hintz said. “We need money today and it’s going to have to be something like a gas tax or some additional immediate revenue to stop the hole that we’ve dug to pay for the things that we need to do.”
“Sen. Fitzgerald and Rep. Vos have been talking about tolling for six years. It seems to be one of those things they throw out there to act like they’re doing something but they never actually do something.”
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