Our Views: Caution: Rough roadwork funding ahead

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Mark Gottlieb isn’t making threats just to stir discussions about Wisconsin’s transportation funding needs or just because road builders have an insatiable appetite for tax dollars.

Instead, Wisconsin’s transportation secretary foresees a rough road for financing highway projects in the next 10 years. The shortfall could hit $700 million just in the next biennial budget. Last week, Gottlieb told The Gazette that, absent a fix, the Interstate 90/39 expansion could be delayed.

That would crimp efforts to rebuild Rock County’s economy in this post-General Motors era. The four-year Interstate project is scheduled to start in 2015. It would expand the freeway from four to six lanes between the state line and Madison and to eight lanes where the Interstate passes through Janesville. The extra lanes would reduce frequent congestion and the standstills when even a fender bender occurs. They would assure companies and developers that goods and services would flow freely more often.

Forward Janesville is right to be a strong advocate for the project. Yet Vice President Dan Cunningham, a student of the funding game, sees the handwriting on the pavement absent state and federal action. A key problem is falling tax revenues as vehicles sip less gas.

The feds will stop sending money to states Sept. 30 unless Congress reauthorizes a funding bill. Cunningham suggests boosting the federal gas tax as much as 5 cents per gallon could ease that pinch.

Wisconsin created its own funding squeeze in part years ago by halting indexing that allowed the state gas tax to rise automatically with inflation. As Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, pointed out in a column in Thursday’s Gazette, it also didn’t help that Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration plundered the segregated transportation fund of $1.4 billion to spend elsewhere.

A joint resolution to change the state constitution and stop this practice has passed two sessions of the Legislature. Voters should approve it in a November referendum. It would assure that gas taxes and license and registration fees go to transportation projects.

Still, funding needs a long-term cash infusion, and Republicans controlling Madison are averse to higher taxes or fees. Some campaigned vowing to oppose increases.

Tolling might be attractive, but it would require the federal government to ease restrictions. Besides, Cunningham says tolling infrastructure wouldn’t be in place to ease the 10-year funding crunch. A commission appointed by Gov. Scott Walker recommended higher gas taxes and registration and license fees. Those ideas are hitting a roadblock with Kedzie and other Republicans.

Some states are watching Oregon’s experiment to charge motorists based on miles driven. While Walker’s commission also forwarded that idea, critics argue it’s another way for government to watch our every move.

Cunningham is right to suggest repealing gas tax indexing was a terrible mistake. No funding option is perfect, he notes, and Forward Janesville is working on recommendations.

Restoring indexing should be part of the mix.

“The choices are all lousy,” Cunningham admits. “However, we’ve got to come around to a point of view that sometimes it’s OK to pay for this sort of stuff. One way I’m interested in is giving a little bit of cover to lawmakers who are willing to step up and make some tough choices that maybe are not all that popular.”

Wisconsin can’t continue down its present funding path. Lawmakers must make the tough choices.

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