February 11, 2016

Transportation funding recommendations face tough road (AUDIO)

Recommendations on how to address Wisconsin’s looming transportation funding shortfall include a gas tax increase, and a new vehicle registration fee based on miles driven. Both of those proposals already appear to face a tough road in the legislature. The Transportation Finance Policy Commission met for over a year and on Wednesday gave unanimous approval to a final report.

“The commission looked at what it would take over the next decade, to really try to maintain our current level of service,” said Craig Thompson, a commissioner who is also Executive Director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association. “We came to the conclusion that we’re about $5 billion dollars short over the next decade.” The commission members were appointed by Governor Scott Walker.

“I don’t love everything in this report. There’s more highway building in it than I would like, but on balance I think it’s an excellent report,” said commission member and former Madison mayor, Dave Cieslewicz. At a Wednesday press conference, commission members expressed the hope that their work would warrant serious consideration by the legislature.

“We have to continue to support the highway system,” said Dodgeville area farmer Bill Hanson, “If we do not, our state will founder.” At least one of the recommendations, for a five cent a gallon gasoline tax increase, has already been rejected by Governor Scott Walker.

“I understand the governor may not be happy with the raising of taxes, but I think that the options you have are limited,” said another member of the ten member, bipartisan panel, former Kenosha mayor John Antaramian. “But I think that the options you have are limited. And therefore, I think that as the legislature looks at this, they’re going to have to start at least taking parts of this, and starting to move it forward.”

“I would say that a gas tax increase is not going to happen” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Tuesday. Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder also released a joint statement. “We will not support raising the gas tax or instituting mileage-based registration fees as a means to fund our roads,” said Vos. “Raising taxes will only serve to damage our recovering economy,” said Suder. “Any increase in the state gas tax is simply off the table.”

“Infrastructure investment . . . it’s vital to our state,” said Robb Kahl, the former four term mayor of Monona who was elected to the state Assembly after his appointment to the commission. “For us not to step up and recognize it’s time to make an investment in that infrastructure, it’s just shortsighted.”

The proposals would amount to additional annual investments of nearly $480 million over the next ten years, across all modes of transportation. The impact on the average vehicle owner would be about 33 cents a day, or about $120 a year.

What is a mileage-based registration fee? Vehicle owners would report their odometer readings when renewing registrations. The first 3,000 miles would be free, and the maximum number of miles charged would be 20,000 annually.

LISTEN: DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb (4:20)

“It’s a low-cost of implementation,” said state Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Mark Gottlieb. “It gives the state the opportunity to get into this notion of people paying for their use of the system directly, proportionately.”

Other key recommendations include increasing heavy truck registration fees, increasing the drivers’ license fee by 20 dollars, and eliminating the sales tax exemption for vehicle trade-ins.

Environmental groups had mixed reaction to the report. The group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin dismissed the report as a “road builders wish list” and called for the commission to go back to the table and make recommendations based on no new taxes. “They found no less than 5 ways to raise more than $6.8 billion in taxes over the next decade to continue business as usual,” said 1000 Friends Executive Director Steve Hiniker.

“The Sierra Club is disappointed that the commission recommended expanding highway spending by $354.1 million a year, as this is out of step with current state trends and needs,” said Shahla Werner, Director of the John Muir Chapter. “We could easily afford increasing transit and funding for biking and walking paths without raiding general funds if we reduced runaway highway spending.”

The association representing the state’s transportation construction industry called the panel’s recommendations reasonable. “Investment in Wisconsin’s roads benefits everyone – from families that travel for vacations to businesses that move their products in and around our state,” said Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. Goss said that while tax and fee increases are never popular, transportation investment will promote safety and long-term economic growth for Wisconsin.


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