At session on roads, attendees favor gas tax increase
NEWVILLE—At a listening session hosted Friday by two state Assembly Democrats, it was clear speakers were not happy with Wisconsin roads.
Speakers from different transportation-related agencies, local municipal officials and interested residents attended the session hosted by Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, and Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville, at the Culver's in Newville.
According to rankings from U.S. News & World Report, Wisconsin ranks 41st in transportation and 49th for roads, despite its No. 16 overall ranking.
Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin and Friday's moderator, said Wisconsin is still one of the most transportation-dependent economies in the country.
Fulton Town Board Chairman Evan Sayre said some roads are 45 or 50 years old and it is a “disgrace” they cannot maintain the infrastructure.
Most of the airing of road grievances came early, when speakers introduced themselves. The rest of the discussion surrounded how to solve the problems.
There was near unanimous agreement from speakers and attendees about raising the gas tax to get money to fix Wisconsin's roads and highways. Most people also favored looking into tolls as a possibility.
Multiple speakers said increasing the gas tax would be fair because those who use the roads more frequently would pay more.
“It's unfortunate that the gas tax has the word 'tax' in it because that seems to be the killer,” one attendee said. “It's the most fair thing for the elderly, like my dad when he was in his 80s. In order to stay in his house, he had to be able to drive to the doctor, to the store. He hardly put any miles on it at all. Why should he pay what we pay?”
Wisconsin's gas tax is 30.9 cents per gallon plus an additional 2 cents for the Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Act fee. The state also has a $75 vehicle registration fee.
Compared to neighboring states, Thompson said, Wisconsin has a lower registration fee and comparable gas tax. When combined, the two user fees are “way lower” than those for Wisconsin's neighbors.
Thompson explained that about 10 years ago, Wisconsin decided to stop indexing the gas tax, which would have helped to adjust the tax with inflation. Without indexing, the tax stayed the same as costs of materials and other things went up.
Steve Kennedy, vice president of Rock Road, spoke sharply against what he has heard about repealing prevailing wages as a way to get more funds.
“So, I guess there's something wrong with companies paying a family-supporting wage. That bothers people in this state,” Kennedy said.
“I really struggle with that,” he said. “And these are tied together because this is the stuff, the rhetoric, the garbage that's out there that's polluting the ability to find a funding solution to the problem that exists.”
One other idea briefly discussed came from Ken Lucht, of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad. He said he was hoping for a “better balance” between goods being transported on railroads and highways. He said this could lighten the load on Wisconsin's roads, ease congestion and improve safety.
“We put collectively 200 million tons of freight on the railroads every year. Our company alone is about 6 million tons of freight that you don't see on the highways,” Lucht said. “At the same time, truckers are our friends. We can't do our business without having sound, efficient routes to the doorsteps of our customers and our businesses.”
Dan Cunningham, Forward Janesville's vice president of government relations and education, said local economies are reliant on solid infrastructure. He and others expressed concern that some municipalities have considered reverting to gravel roads.
“There's got to be a way to just get to 'yes' in Madison,” he said.