Editorial: State's roads funding needs adjusting

7:58 PM, Jun. 13, 2013  |  Comments
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You wouldn't think the state has a transportation funding problem, judging by the amount of work being done on U.S. 41 and Wisconsin 29 in the Green Bay area.

But it does.

The funding problem deals more with our priorities in what gets funded - big highway projects - and what gets neglected - local roads and transit.

Local roads that are maintained by towns, counties, villages and cities have seen funding frozen in the past several years. A typical town gets about 35 percent of its transportation funding from the state; the rest comes from property taxes, which isn't much in an era of levy limits.

The consequence is that a town has to prioritize which potholes to fill and bridges to repair and which ones to let go. The ones that aren't repaired will only become bigger problems in the future with bigger price tags.

Meanwhile, attention is paid to huge projects, like the zoo interchange project in Milwaukee County. There are good reasons to expand major highways, but the need isn't always so critical.

For example, the WISPIRG Foundation in 2011 found that a project to widen Wisconsin 15 in Outagamie County - a $125 million project that was part of the governor's highway improvement budget - wasn't so crucial. According to WISPIRG, internal documents showed that "without additional spending the level of service on the road likely won't deteriorate until 2040."

Plus, Walker's proposal included more than $900 million in total bonding. That's a future bill our children will pay. Instead of using transportation funds on projects and repairs, we'll be spending it to pay back the principal and interest on these huge projects.

Meanwhile, money spent on new road construction, maintenance and snowplowing on local roads is critical for residents and businesses. It has a more direct impact on a community. Of the approximate 110,000 miles of roads in the Wisconsin, the towns, counties, cities and villages account for 101,000 miles. Town roads make up the largest portion, at 62,000 miles, followed by county at just under 20,000.

The Joint Finance Committee did address the funding, to a degree, increasing the general transportation aid from $2,117 per mile to $2,202 in 2015 and thereafter, a 4 percent increase. But it would remain at $2,117 per mile this year and next.

That offers some relief, but the money came from the general purpose fund. There's competition for those funds from other areas, such as schools and law enforcement.

The state needs to find revenue "for the long term, at the state and federal level, that's going to sustain local roads," said Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association.

As vehicles become more fuel-efficient and, as studies show, people drive less, funds from sources such as the motor fuel tax are going to decrease. The projections of a decrease in gas tax collections led to the projection of at $63.5 million deficit in the transportation fund by the end of the 2013 biennium.

The state can't continue to tap the general fund or borrow to pay for roads. It must consider alternate approaches to funding its transportation account. The consumer advocate group WISPIRG proposed a "10 percent solution," which would cut 10 percent from the highway budget and increase local road reimbursement and transit funding by 10 percent each.

This would fund most of the big highway projects but reduce bonding, inject $21 million into transit systems during a time when people are driving less and give $82 million for local roads.

That proposal might not hold all the answers, but it starts the discussion. As Stadelman said, a long-term solution is necessary before inaction on local roads and transit systems becomes a crisis.

As the Assembly takes up the budget on Tuesday, its transportation focus should be on maintaining the infrastructure and transit we have and not leaving our kids with the bill.

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