Uncertainty remains over transportation funding in Wisconsin, as the clock runs down on state budget deliberations. Governor Scott Walker’s proposed two-year state budget includes borrowing about $1.3 billion to fund road and infrastructure projects, but Republicans in both chambers have pushed back. At the same time, Walker has indicated opposition to any gas tax increase. Transportation is one of the major agenda items remaining before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which expects to wrap up deliberations this week.
“For as close as we are, it’s really very unclear right now,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association. “Leadership in both houses has said that they’re unwilling to go to the level of bonding that the governor has proposed, so the question is, is there going to be other revenue taken up to fill in that amount, or are we going to look at filling it in with delays and cuts?”
Thompson said project cuts and delays may be on the table – and perhaps even on the ongoing Zoo Interchange project in Milwaukee could be impacted. “If you’re looking at legislators from across the state trying to make this work, and $600 million in this budget is for the Zoo Interchange, I’m not sure how they end up voting for a budget that keeps that on track at the expense of every other part of the state.”
Past efforts to address the state’s ongoing shortfall in transportation funding have failed to gain traction in the legislature. In early 2013, a commission appointed by the governor released a report which included a gas tax increase, and a new vehicle registration fee based on miles driven. Those recommendations were not taken up, and the state faces an estimated $5 billion shortfall in the next ten years.
“The transportation department and DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb put a great deal of work and effort on the proposal they put forth, and I think a lot of us assumed it was with the backing of the administration, so the fact that none of that has been acted on has been a surprising to a lot of us,” Thompson said. “If we don’t come up with revenue, then everything is on the table.”
As budget writers look for additional revenue, they may consider a tax on bicycle purchases. It’s an idea that’s apparently been kicking around in state budget negotiations. Wisconsin Bicycle Federation executive director Dave Cieslewicz said the organization doesn’t necessarily oppose that, but that the state’s bicycle industry ought to be consulted.
Cieslewicz noted the budget already contains some hits on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, through repeal the state’s 2009 Complete Streets law as recommended by Walker. “He would cut funding for both bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure by $2 million. We’ve been fighting both of those things.” A Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper said that a $25 new bike tax could generate more than $7 million in the next two years.