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Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-'15 budget proposal estimates that the state's transportation fund will finish fiscal year 2015 with a $12.6 million balance. If wishes were horses . . . . Turns out the real numbers may amount to a $63.5 million deficit, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The bureau says in its report to the Joint Committee on Finance - which will take up the transportation budget Tuesday - that the revised numbers are due largely to less money coming in via the gasoline tax: "Compared to the amounts in the bill, motor vehicle fuel tax revenues are estimated to be $42.5 million lower in 2013-14 and $42.8 million lower in 2014-15," the report says.
In addition, vehicle registration revenues also are expected to drop by $5.3 million more than the budget originally estimated, and investment earnings are expected to bring in $5.1 million less. While revenue from several other sources, such as railroad and aviation taxes and fees, is expected to increase, the bottom line is still a deficit of $63.5 million.
The budget has another major problem: Its balance is all wrong, putting too much into new or expanded highway construction and not enough into transit and maintenance for highways and local roads.
Yes, the state needs a healthy state highway road network to support a healthy economy, and it needs to rebuild a freeway system that is 50 years old. Projects such as rebuilding the Zoo Interchange are necessary, as is the work on widening I-94 to the Illinois border and the Marquette Interchange. The entire state benefits from those projects.
But there are proposed projects that simply aren't necessary at this time. And keep in mind that building new roads carries a dual expense: the cost of the initial work and then the cost of additional maintenance, something the state isn't adequately funding now. Maintaining local roads is perhaps more important to a healthy transportation infrastructure than are new highways. No one wants to drive down streets filled with potholes that damage cars and trucks delivering goods.
The state needs a better transportation budget. It has to fix the 2015 shortfall but it also has to build a budget that is sustainable in the long-term beyond 2015. The Legislature should consider state Rep. Robin Vos' idea for toll roads, or at least some variation thereof; it should consider raising the gas tax; it should at least look at charging for miles traveled rather than relying on a dwindling stream of revenue from the gas tax.
With more hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, and with people cutting driving in tough economic times, that stream is getting thinner. Some groups also argue that young people are getting their licenses later and relying more on bikes and transit to get them where they need to go.
One promising idea is a proposal from 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, WISPIRG and the state chapter of the Sierra Club to cut 10% from highway spending. The money would be used "to reduce bonding by $200 million, increase local road reimbursements by $82 million, and increase transit funding $21 million (a 10% increase in local road reimbursement and transit funding)," according to a news release the group issued last week.
The groups raise good questions about the need for projects such as the widening of I-90 south of Madison, (at a cost of $715 million to $1.5 billion), the widening of Highway 15 in Outagamie County ($125 million) and the widening of Highway 38 between Milwaukee and Racine just four miles east of a wider I-94 ($125 million).
Is every one of those projects necessary? Is it wise to bond for those projects when transportation funding is in such a precarious state? Does it make sense to shortchange maintenance and transit (which took a 10% hit in the least budget) for such projects?
Given the projections for the transportation fund, some projects will have to be delayed or cut just to bring the budget into line, as Walker proposed Monday. We're not sure he's right on the details but he's on the right track. Even so, the 10% solution still should be on the table.
Earlier this month, 29 business, government and civic leaders sent a letter to the Legislature urging restoration of funds for transit. The signers included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Tim Sheehy of the Metro Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce, Julia Taylor of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Mike Fabishak of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin and Kenneth Yunker of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
"Good regional public transit is needed to get and keep people educated and working, and business growing jobs," the letter says. "Transit is an important factor in building global economic competitiveness and attracting and retaining businesses and the talent that they seek. A sustainable economic model for mass transit must be a priority for the positive economic future of SE Wisconsin and the State of Wisconsin."
That's exactly right. Transit is key, well-maintained local roads are key, some new highway construction is key. They are all critical but they need to be done in the right balance. The 10% solution offers one way of finding that solution. Legislators need to give it a close look as they consider how to adequately fund the state's transportation network and set the right priorities.
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