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Matt Pommer: Would lifting of restriction roll toll roads into Wisconsin?

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Matt Pommer
May 25, 2014

Federal highway officials want to allow states to impose tolls on existing Interstate highways to help pay for repairs. It could be an attractive idea in Wisconsin, where the state faces a $680 million transportation hole in the next biennial budget.

Toll roads could capture money from out-of-state residents as they go through Wisconsin. Imposing tolls on Interstate highways allows politicians to avoid the word “tax.” Some citizens think any tax increase is un-American and a blow to their freedom.

Two factors are important to understand when it comes to paying for highway upkeep. Cars and trucks are more fuel efficient, and that translates into lower gas tax receipts. And while the anti-tax movement simmers, road construction costs continue to climb.

Wisconsin dodged the highway-finance issue in the current biennial budget by borrowing nearly $1 billion. The interest on those bonds increases the overall costs while transferring the burden to future generations.

Other transportation-finance alternatives include higher gasoline taxes and higher registration fees for cars and trucks. Increased license fees would only impact Wisconsin drivers. Or course, the state could scale back its program of adding lanes and fancy interchanges for existing roads to help solve the projected $680 million gap between available funds and road-repair needs.

Politicians love road-building and the accompanying ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Pictures are always taken at those events—some pictures even end up in campaign literature at the next election. But few politicians offer specific solutions for financing assorted transportation needs.

State Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb has been touring the state, warning of the upcoming shortfall. Building new highways and fixing state roads will help manufacturing, agriculture and tourism, he says, and bring promises of more jobs. But Gottlieb offers no specific solution to the funding question.

Local officials in his audiences are quick to remind Gottlieb that state aid plays a major role in their ability to maintain and repair local streets and roads. State aid reduces the reliance on property taxes, which public opinion polls always cite as the most disliked tax in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker's administration keeps stressing that its focus will be on reducing taxes if the governor is elected for a second four-year term in November. Walker also aspires to be on the Republican national ticket in 2016. A record of never raising state taxes might help sell him to the tea party wing of the Republican Party.

Toll opponents include the trucking industry, motorist groups and some who think government would use the cameras at toll booths to invade their privacy. The status quo is always the strongest force in government decision-making.

The federal proposal to allow any state to collect tolls on Interstate highways is part of President Obama's $302 billion infrastructure bill aimed at solving a looming shortfall in the U.S. Highway Trust Fund. States currently can apply tolls to Interstate highways in order to add lanes. But neither the federal nor state governments have enough money to rebuild existing lanes. Interstate highways stretch 47,000 miles in the United States. The last time the federal gasoline tax was increased was 1993.

Thirty-five states apply tolls to turnpikes and bridges to help pay for construction and repair costs.

Republicans are expected to solidly control the next Wisconsin Legislature, thanks to the gerrymandering of district lines that occurred in 2011. Many of these Republican candidates have taken the no-tax-increase pledge. Highway tolls could help them honor the pledge while helping pay for road upkeep.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

                                



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