OPINION: Can you hear us NOW, Governor?

Local town, village and city officials sounded a clear message when they gathered Thursday at the Marathon County courthouse to discuss transportation funding.

Peter Weinschenk

Peter Weinschenk

Peter Weinschenk is editor of the Record Review newspaper, serving Marathon, Athens, Edgar and Stratford, where this column also appears.

The 50 officials, after lamenting their inability to keep up with road maintenance, called on Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature to fix the state’s transportation funding crisis for the long-haul, not try to placate them with minor, chicken feed increases in road aids.

Town of Johnson clerk Marilyn Bhend, county representative to the Wisconsin Towns Association, said Gov. Walker’s proposed 2017-19 transportation budget would increase the state’s per mile road aids to $2,290, an increase of $88 over the last budget. She said this is a pittance. “That’s enough to pave 53 feet,” Bhend said.

Local officials said they were caught in a vise. On the one side, they were forced to honor state-imposed  property tax levy limits. On the other side, they have received less and less transportation aid each year. Road construction costs, however, have only gone up. “We have restrictions on the money we can raise,” said town of Marathon chairman Keith Langenhahn. “But there are no restrictions on the bills we get. It doesn’t take an auditor or CFO to tell you that your roads are going to go to heck.”

The municipal officials said their roads and bridges are deteriorating. Town officials said they have culvert bridges rotted out at the bottom with no money to replace them. A replacement might cost $50,000, they said, but, with suspended federal bridge aid, they said they can’t imagine how they will pay for new culverts. Village and city officials said they all had long lists of pothole-laden streets needing repair. Town officials said they had trouble just paying for granite on town roads.

Is Walker listening to these officials? It doesn’t seem so. Instead, he uses cherry-picked data and too-slick-by-half arguments to justify another underfunded state transportation budget. For instance, Walker claims the state’s 30.9 cent per gallon tax is among the highest in the nation and that 90% of “most travelled” roads in Wisconsin rate fair or better. TRIP, a national transportation research group, provides some fact checking. The organization reports that Wisconsin ranks 33rd among states in transportation fees and taxes ($274 per average motorist), that 42% of major Wisconsin roads rate mediocre to fair condition and that poor roads cost Wisconsinites $6 billion annually in vehicle repair, congestion related delay and traffic fatalities.

Gov. Walker needs to listen. What people in Wisconsin want is a pay as you go transportation system. That means raising taxes and fees to the level of spending. If the governor wants to hand out extra money to local officials to repave deteriorating pavement, fine, just get the money. The governor’s budget doesn’t do that. It tries to hush local officials with a small increase in road aids but, in order to pay for that, he increases state bonding by a half billion dollars. Walker argues that borrowing in the current low-interest environment for roads “just makes sense,” but that’s not what makes sense to the average Wisconsin resident. Back in August, Marquette Law School asked people in a Wisconsin poll whether the state should borrow more money to make up for a projected transportation deficit. Eighty-eight percent of Wisconsin residents said no.

The Wisconsin economy is pretty close to full capacity. In our area, help wanted signs flutter unanswered along roadsides. In 2010, state tax receipts were down. Now, things are different. But we have to recognize real limits. If current tax and fee revenues don’t now pay for transportation, I can’t imagine a time when they would. Maybe Gov. Walker believes in some Wisconsin miracle where transportation taxes will by themselves align with spending. That would seem to be wishful thinking.

  I ask for Gov. Walker, then, to bend an ear. He needs to heed local officials, the general public and economic reality. It’s time Wisconsin get its transportation budget back into balance.