So Raise The Damn Gas Tax All Ready!

Wisconsin continues to debate how to increase funds for transportation (in Wisconsin that translates to build more freeways) as gas tax revenues continue to fall as cars get more fuel efficient or don’t use gasoline at all. Instead the governor continues to put highway construction on the credit card or extends the completion dates for major projects (which increases their costs through inflation and often overlooked, loss of utility and increased travel times for users) to balance the transportation budget.

There have been a number of discussions in the legislature around increasing the gasoline tax, vehicle registration and just recently, converting state freeways into toll roads.

Of course Governor Walker continues to stick to his no tax increase pledge by threatening to veto any gas tax increases if they aren’t balanced by tax cuts in other areas. This brings up a number of points. If gas increases are balanced against other tax cuts, those paying increased gas taxes aren’t necessarily the people getting the new offsetting tax cuts. I can’t imagine that will make drivers very happy.

And second, how is reducing other taxes to balance gas tax increases not essentially the same as using general funds to pay for transportation? And isn’t using general funds for transportation now verboten? I am sure many of you can either correct me on that or support my statement.

So about those toll roads…that is a very very slippery slope. Somebody is going to have to spend the initial capital to build the infrastructure to measure and collect tolls. Where’s that money going to come from? Wisconsin already doesn’t have the funds to fix the roads, build new ones, etc….how can it add tolling facilities? (this all assumes the federal government would permit the conversion of freeways to tollways…not unlikely under the President Trump regime)

But the talk is that private investors would pay for the new infrastructure…and then reap benefits from the tolling. And how many years would it take to implement? If we look at the Zoo interchange, years maybe decades. Hmmmm. Who controls the fees and determines the profit margins when private enterprise controls public utilities?

But if you are going to be ‘Open For Business’, you had better have first rate infrastructure, not just a low tax rate…businesses need to get their employees to work on time, need to get their raw materials to their businesses, and need to get their finished products to market. Subpar streets, roads and highways don’t work for them.

So for the quick and dirty, the current Wisconsin gas tax is 30.9 cents a gallon. Take a quick 5.1 cent increase and gas tax revenue jumps 16.5% and takes a lot of stress off of the transportation budget. Increase it 10.1 cents and it’s an increase of 32.7%. When I first suggested this gas in Milwaukee was around $2.00 a gallon and even now at $2.29, a 5 or 10 cent hike isn’t going to be that discernable.

You want some simple background into the issue, please read Ernst-Ulrich Franzen’s article on the resignation of the Secretary Mark Gottlieb from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation…he apparently got tired of speaking truth to power.

Gov. Walker’s solution to funding transportation projects? Borrow, borrow, borrow!

It looks like our “fiscally responsible” Governor Scott Walker’s “plan” for funding transportation projects in Wisconsin is simple: kick the can down the road by borrowing $500 million.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel received an early look at the plan, which the DOT will submit Thursday and the governor will use as he crafts the budget bill he’ll send to lawmakers in February. Walker will tour the state Thursday to tout the proposal, including two stops at projects that his administration wants to keep on track at a cost of more than $500 million over two years: I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison; and Highway 10/441 in the Fox Valley.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said that the Walker administration plan would forego permanent answers in favor of a “political solution” that would lead to longer delays on ever more expensive projects. Doing maintenance on outdated highways is akin to putting a new roof on a house that has been condemned, he said.

“I’m concerned that his solution does nothing more than kick the can down the road for two years,” Vos said.

The DOT proposal would also authorize $500 million in new borrowing, down from $850 million in debt approved in the current budget. That amount of new bonds is expected to ensure that in the coming years no more than 25 cents out of every dollar in the state transportation fund is used to pay off debt, state officials said.

While supporters of Gov. Walker love to talk about how he’s gotten the state on solid financial footing, the fact is Wisconsin is no better off than when Gov. Walker was elected – he’s just done a better job than his predecessors when it comes to evading the consequences of his irresponsible fiscal decisions.

Scott Walker’s breach of contract to cost WI taxpayers $10 million

After Gov. Scott Walker cancelled the State of Wisconsin’s contracts with Spanish train maker Talgo, that company sued the state for breach of contract.

It looks like Talgo’s lawsuit against the state has been setttled, and Wisconsin’s taxpayers are $10 million poorer as a result.

The state will pay a Spanish manufacturer nearly $10 million for two trains it built that were never used after Gov. Scott Walker abandoned a rail project.

It settles a lawsuit Talgo Inc. filed in 2012 over the trains it manufactured to run between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The Rascally GOP Fiscal Conservative…Spendthrifts In Madison

Despite all of their claims to the contrary, the GOP under the dome in Madison can’t wait to waste taxpayer money.

Legal work by an outside firm from the state of MICHIGAN cost the state taxpayers $2.2 million dollars on a $500,000 contract (yeah that’s right) to provide advice on the proposed Ho Chunk casino at the derelict greyhound track in Kenosha.

As for the trains built to bolster the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago, not only does the manufacturer get to keep the two train sets, the taxpayers have to pay Talgo an additional $9.7 million. And that doesn’t even count the jobs and repair facilities that we lost.

On top of the $550 million in Medicaid aid that the governor turned down. Or the other train route to Madison and the attendant $800 million.

Fiscal conservatives my foot.

House Republicans cut Amtrak funding the day after fatal Amtrak crash

Well isn’t this something?!?!?

House Republicans voted Wednesday to chop about a fifth of Amtrak’s budget, less than a day after a deadly train crash that Democrats pointed to as a prime example of the dangers of shortchanging the nation’s transportation needs.

They also rebuffed Democrats’ attempts to provide money for an advanced speed-control technology that federal investigators later said would have prevented the crash.

“Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters Wednesday evening. Sumwalt, who is leading the crash probe, spoke hours after the House Appropriations Committee voted down a Democratic amendment that would have offered $825 million for the technology known as positive train control.

In a related story, Republican House Speaker John Boehner apparently thinks it’s stupid to blame federal funding of Amtrak for the fatal train crash.

Speaker John Boehner’s said Thursday it’s “stupid” to blame federal funding of Amtrak for the deadly train crash in Philadelphia.
Democrats responded, in so many words, that the comment itself was dumb. And at least one safety expert said that federal investment in train-speed technology would have prevented the accident that killed eight people.
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“Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?” Boehner said at a news conference, cutting off a reporter as she asked about criticism that railways aren’t adequately funded.

What’s really stupid about Speaker Boehner’s comment is that it’s absolutely true that the installation of positive train control technology could have prevented the crash, and an increase in funding for Amtrak could have sped up the installation of positive train control technology, which is mandated to be completed on all railroads by the end of 2015.

Report: Wisconsin’s roads third-worst in nation

Welcome to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, where the state’s roads are literally crumbling beneath our tires.

Wisconsin’s roads are the third-worst in the nation and the potholes and other problems that plague them cost drivers in some cities almost twice the national average in repairs and associated costs, according to a new study of the state’s highway system.

The numbers mark a dramatic decline in road quality. As recently as 11 years ago, Wisconsin’s roads ranked No. 22 in the nation, and their deterioration affects almost every industry and motorist in the state, according to the study commissioned by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute.

Poor roads in the Milwaukee area cost drivers $700 a year in extra vehicle repairs, according to the study; in the Madison area, road conditions cost drivers an additional $615 in annual tire wear, maintenance and accelerated deterioration. Nationally, substandard road conditions cost drivers an average of $377 per year, the study found.

The primary culprit: State budget cuts that have slashed the amount of money dedicated to repairing both state highways and local roads, which has left fewer than half of Wisconsin’s roads rated as “good” or better, the report found.

Thinking of Our Children’s Future Is Borrowing To Build Roads

The party who keeps saying that we need to think of our children’s future while cutting education, cutting safety net programs, cutting funds to the UW system, etc…it once again considering our children’s future by borrowing to fund the transportation fund:

Gov. Scott Walker plans to rely on borrowing rather than a gasoline tax increase to fund transportation projects over the next two years.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday that the governor’s plan calls for $1.3 billion in borrowing for transportation, but the state’s overall borrowing would drop because Walker wants to delay construction of buildings that don’t already have initial approval, including projects in the University of Wisconsin system.

The newspaper reported that the plan will let Walker tout his opposition to raising taxes as he considers a possible run for president, but that the increased reliance on borrowing to fund highways may not go over well with his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.

Of course his administration recommended raises the gas tax to cover any transportation fund shortfall:

Walker’s transportation secretary, Mark Gottlieb, in November recommended increasing gas taxes and vehicle fees by $751 million over two years. Walker’s office said he rejected those proposals.

But he needs to follow through on his promise to continue to lower ‘current’ taxes no matter the effect on future taxes or the future of our children. So instead of a tax and spend government economy we get a borrow and spend. At least with the former you know what the results are gonna cost you. And it even has some powerful Republicans wondering what game is afoot:

Two years ago, Walker and GOP lawmakers approved $2 billion in borrowing. About half was for buildings and maintenance and about half was for transportation. Walker’s new plan contains no new borrowing for buildings because the state has $858 million in unused bonding authority it can still use.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said wants to see Walker’s overall plan before deciding how much borrowing she could support. She also said she wants to see a sustainable system for funding roads.

“The can keeps getting kicked down the road,” she said. “I’d say right now everything’s on the table.”

It’s seems like someone’s presidential campaign might just be interfering with his party’s statewide agenda.

Some Thoughts On The Double Deck Freeway

As many of you living in and around Milwaukee know, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is suggesting that the stretch of I-94 from 19th Street to 70th Street be rebuilt and expanded to four lanes. Because of space restrictions at the Miller Park interchanges and the veteran’s cemetery just west of there, DOT would like to build a double deck expressway…with one deck running in each direction. Besides the exorbitant costs involved, the local residents rightly complain that road noise in their neighborhood will be magnified as traffic is raised to their level. And like the streetcar this solution has it’s proponents and opponents…but they haven’t gotten as vociferous yet as the freeway isn’t as far along in development yet.

But let me explain something to you! LOL!

In the early 1970s when I was a student at first UW-Waukesha and later UW-Milwaukee, I enjoyed visiting the Art Institute of Chicago a few times a year. I travelled the toll way to the Edens expressway to the Loop. Pretty nifty! At that time the Edens was a three lane in each direction expressway and it being Chicago got backed up a bit from time to time. But I loved feeling grown up and navigating the big city and didn’t think too much about it…and I also enjoyed that small town superiority of not living with that day in day out.

Now we are solidly into the 21st Century and I still enjoy travelling to Chicago to visit the Art Institute and other attractions. And unless I am visiting something else on the way that is off the track, I travel the toll road to the Edens to the Loop…and it’s still just three lanes…and sometimes being the big city of Chicago it gets backed up. But guess what? It doesn’t seem anymore congested than it did 40 years ago.

Now there are probably a lot of reasons that the Edens can still function at three lanes…one of them being the Metra and other commuter trains and the elevated trains. And maybe they do a better job of selling car pooling. It certainly isn’t because of a change in population or car ownership…I am guessing that has stayed pretty much the same.

But what I am getting at here is I-94 can probably get along pretty well if it is rebuilt at grade and the ramps are improved and run off and run on lanes are improved or implemented where there is room. And yes I know that stretch can be a pain and it gets backed up at times…because I drive it everyday to and from work…but it is workable. It doesn’t need four lanes, it doesn’t need to look like an 8 mile long aircraft carrier flight deck…it just needs to be engineered to work better.

And maybe we should really seriously start to think about a parallel light rail system from Waukesha County to downtown.

Milwaukee Street Car Fight Heads To The Southside:

Just before last Wednesday’s Common Council vote on the fate of the starter loop for the Milwaukee street car, we experienced dueling press conferences in the city hall rotunda on Tuesday January 20th. And it got very interesting to see who was involved.

First up were Alderman Terry Witkowski (13th Aldermanic District) and Alderman Jose Perez (12th Aldermanic District) with a 10 AM press conference. They were accompanied by County Supervisor Jason Haas (14th Supervisory District). These three supporters of the street car were there to advocate the next phase of the street car…running from downtown to the airport via 6th street. A rather odd outside route until you realize that puts it right through Ald. Witkowski’s and Ald Perez’s aldermanic districts. They clearly see the potential development around a street car. And of course it traverses Sup. Haas’ district which includes the airport.

Not to be out done, Alderman Tony Zielinski (14th Aldermanic District), Alderman Robert Donovan (8th Aldermanic District) and Alderman Joe Davis Sr. (2nd Aldermanic District) held their own press conference that same afternoon to oppose the street car.

Now here is where it gets rather interesting. If it weren’t for Ald. Zielinski’s 14 Aldermanic district, the 12th and 13th Aldermanic districts would be lakefront property…they essentially wrap around the 14th…so they have many of the same concerns. As a matter of fact, the 14th district is largely comprised of the Bay View neighborhood…rabid with new urbanists, young professionals, bike enthusiasts, artists and artisans, and hipsters of every persuasion. One of the brighter spots in Milwaukee that has seen growth in it’s business district even through out the recession. Just the people you would expect to be bona fide street car enthusiasts. Yet Ald. Zielinski claims that his contacts in the neighborhood are overwhelmingly opposed.

And one very logical route from the Intermodal station to the airport would be Water Street to First Street to Kinnickinnic Ave to Howell Ave to the airport…right through the heart of Bay View, right through the heart of the restaurant district, and right down Howell which is just starting to catch on as KK becomes saturated. Yet Ald. Zielinski remains opposed to the street car…and maybe that means it actually will run down 6th street…and I bet those eastsiders would love riding it to La Perla or Botanas and avoid the parking hassle…but I am just thinking out loud.

But the big vote came Wednesday morning and the streetcar was approved in the Common Council and all was right in the world…except for Ald. Zielinski…he voted for the proposal…so he could be the bag man for the opposition and through an arcane parliamentary move, get the vote delayed once again to the February 10th Common Council meeting…when we get to do it all over again.

full disclosure: I have lived in Bay View since December 1980. I own a home there. Supervisor Haas is my county supervisor and Ald. Zielinski is my alderman. And I want a street car…if I still worked downtown I would want it even more.