Challenges and Opportunities Lie Ahead for Transportation
Column by John Nygren (R-Marinette), State Representative for Wisconsin’s 89th Assembly District and Co-Chair of the legislature’s budget writing committee, the Joint Committee on Finance.
We need an efficient and reliable transportation infrastructure to meet the growing demands of our economy and motorists. Whether it be farmers and manufacturers getting their goods to market, everyday job commuters or vacationers visiting many of our great tourist attractions, transportation impacts nearly every aspect of our lives and economy.
I am proud to say that during the recent legislative session, my colleagues and I recognized how dependent we are upon a healthy transportation infrastructure and looked to protect this critical economic driver. Not only did we increase funding for state and local road maintenance, but we also assured vital projects such as the Zoo Interchange, Hoan Bridge, and I-94 corridor remained on schedule. We also made significant investments in our rail, harbor and other transit systems.
Additionally, the legislature took steps to enhance the integrity and sustainability of the transportation fund by approving a constitutional amendment that will put an end to the practice of stealing transportation funds for non-transportation purposes. This common sense measure will come before voters this fall, and it is critical we see that effort through.
Moving forward, transportation funding will be one of the greatest challenges lawmakers will face as a projected $6 to $15 billion shortfall exists over the next decade. Transportation revenues, generated primarily from registration fees and the state motor fuel tax, are not keeping pace with inflation and are not meeting current or future needs. Increased reliance on fuel efficient, high mileage cars is further lowering revenues and this problem will only escalate as fuel efficiency continues to improve and new, more stringent, federal standards are implemented.
The outlook at the federal level - federal funds account for one quarter of total transportation revenues - is not any better. The federal fuel tax has not been raised since 1993 and is now down to approximately 50% of its original purchasing power. Running a shortfall of roughly $15 billion per year, the federal transportation fund is essentially broke and Congressional action to fix the problem appears to be at an impasse.
Furthermore, borrowing for transportation projects has increased by 24% over the past decade, a level which is unsustainable in the long-run. With borrowing come debt service costs, expected to consume a staggering quarter of state transportation revenue by 2023, and decreased future buying power. Another issue we must address is a growing dependency on general fund dollars, which come from the same pot of money used for tax relief, local governments and our schools, to make up for transportation shortfalls.
A number of new revenue sources have been proposed to maintain transportation funding levels. For example, other states have increased vehicle registration fees, indexed the gas tax or imposed a new sales tax to boost transportation funding. Elimination of the sales tax exemption on trade-in vehicles has been mentioned, along with depositing a portion of auto-related sales tax revenue in the transportation fund. Some have also proposed increasing fees on alternative fuel vehicles and high-mileage vehicles to ensure that all users of the roads pay their fair share. Wisconsin could also move items that are not directly tied to infrastructure improvements out of the transportation fund. A new fee based on miles traveled is taking hold in other states. Finally, tolling has been proposed, which would increase out of state support for our highways.
The notion of increasing taxes and fees stands in contrast to the policies my fellow Republicans and I have supported. In fact, we have a strong record of holding the line on taxes, returning billions of dollars to families and job creators since 2011. We have resisted increasing transportation taxes knowing the burden it places on families and business owners, many of whom are still digging out from the recession and failed policies of the past.
With that said, it may be time to recognize transportation funding isn’t keeping up with our needs and our revenue base - one of the narrowest in the country - must be broadened. It is also time we acknowledge that while there is a time and place for borrowing, and it has been a viable short-term solution, it is not a sustainable funding source. Instead, we must think long-term in order to support the levels of transportation funding required to maintain the infrastructure we all rely on. Properly funding our roads, bridges, railways, harbors, airports and transit systems is critical for economic development and the future of our state as a whole. While it won’t be easy to identify a fair and responsible path to addressing our transportation needs in the near future, it will be necessary.
In Business Wisconsin Blog
Doh! Don’t be Homer Simpson. Take Time to Get the Facts
Note: A version of this blog originally ran in early May.
America was founded on a distrust of government, especially far away, arbitrary government. Over the years, there have been ebbs and flows in our collective view of government – through a civil war, world wars, a great depression, the New Deal and the Great Recession. Two hundred and thirty-eight years in and we are at a point where confidence in government is at more of an ebb than a flow.
A poll conducted by the AP at the beginning of the year found that 70 percent of Americans lack confidence in the government’s ability “to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014.”
With recent examples like the response to Hurricane Katrina and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, it is hard to blame us.
As has generally been the case over all of these years, we tend to be a bit more trusting of government that is closer to us. In the same AP poll, 45 percent of Americans were at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 percent expressing that much confidence in their local government.
While Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike have different reasons to be upset with elected officials and government agencies, it is not productive in my opinion to just go into shut-down mode. We do have to make an effort to discern between what we deem to be ineffective or costly programs and initiatives versus ones that actually have merit and are well managed. If not, we might as well become anarchists.
James Madison put it this way, "A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." Of course, the flipside of that is articulated so well by Homer Simpson: “Just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand.”
For purposes of this blog, I will assume most of us subscribe to Madison’s view over Homer Simpson’s. Under that assumption I would ask that you take the time to look at how Wisconsin is currently prioritizing, managing and funding its transportation system. Fortunately, WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb is providing us the opportunity to do just that.
He traveled around the state hosting town hall meetings that were basically three part. The first was to explain what comprises our current transportation network; summarize its relative condition and explain the efforts that are underway in each region to maintain or improve our state and local roads, bridges, bus systems, airports, harbors and railways. The second part, was to describe how the department is holding itself accountable to the taxpaying public. And, the third was to discuss the funding challenges that we face.
The effort is called Transportation Moves Wisconsin. The town hall meetings were held in LaCrosse, Madison, Superior, Eau Claire, Wausau, Green Bay, Oshkosh, West Allis and Kenosha. You can go to the site to get all of the details here.
While on this site, you can watch a brief video which explains a great deal about the history of transportation in Wisconsin not to mention link to actual budget charts and documents, a timeline of transportation in Wisconsin and MAPSS, the department’s tool to measure performance.
You can also provide comments if you were unable to attend one of these meetings. All comments are archived on this site.
We all have opinions. Some believe a local project should happen more quickly. Others may feel we are spending too much money on one area and not enough on another.
All of these opinions are important to share. The only thing I would ask is that you take some time to read and digest the information that is so readily available on this site before etching those opinions in stone.
There are some issues out there that just require common sense answers. Not everything has to be a proxy for the greater ideological debate of our time. Providing a platform to move goods and people more efficiently than our competitors across the country and across the globe should be one of those issues.
In the last several weeks, Congress has made progress on some important transportation measures.
Water Resources Reform and Development Act
The House of Representatives and Senate have overwhelmingly (412 to 4 and 91 to7, respectively) approved water resources reform legislation, which according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure press release “cuts federal red tape and bureaucracy, streamlines the infrastructure project delivery process, fosters fiscal responsibility, and strengthens our water transportation networks to promote America's competitiveness, prosperity, and economic growth.”
The conference report represents the bipartisan, bicameral agreement between House and Senate conferees responsible for negotiating a final measure between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the bill.
The $12.3 billion bill authorizes 34 critical navigation projects on coastal, inland and Great Lakes waterways. It also deauthorizes over $18 billion in old, inactive projects.
At least 10 percent of all federal funding for harbor improvement projects will go to the Great Lakes region under the newly approved congressional legislation. In addition, the bill designates the lakes as a single navigational system for funding purposes. Supporters say that should give smaller ports a better chance of getting money for maintenance work.
This is the first water resources bill passed since 2007.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved a six-year measure to reauthorize the highway portion of MAP-21, the current surface transportation bill.
The bill provides $265 billion for highway programs over 6 years and keeps in place the core program structure adopted in MAP-21. Funding is basically continued at current levels through 2020, adjusted for inflation.
S. 2322 will eventually go to the full Senate for consideration, where it will be combined with measures from the Senate Committee on Finance, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
Last month, the President released his reauthorization proposal, Grow America. The administration's four-year, $302 billion surface transportation reauthorization measure proposes to fund the increased investment with revenues from tax reform.
The House Appropriations Committee has approved, by a 28-21 vote, a draft appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development for fiscal year 2015.
Funding for most transportation programs is continued at current levels. TIGER Grants, Amtrak Grants and Capital Investment Grants receive cuts of $500 million, $200 million and $251 million, respectively.
Status of the Highway Trust Fund
Despite moving ahead with reauthorizing surface transportation programs and 2015 appropriations, Congress has made no headway on the larger issue – funding. The Highway Trust Fund is expected to run short of cash in late August and drop below the $4 billion safety balance at the end of July.
Let's Ride Wisconsin
Wisconsin was recently ranked the number 3 state for bicycling by the League of American Bicyclists, the nation’s largest bicycling advocacy group. This is an improvement of 5 places over 2013.
Every year, the League ranks all 50 states on their bikeability utilizing a mutli-faceted Bicycle Friendly State questionnaire that is answered by each state’s bicycle coordinator. The questionnaire covers five categories: Legislation & Enforcement, Policies & Programs, Infrastructure & Funding, Education & Encouragement, and Evaluation & Planning.
Madison Going for the Platinum
In a related story, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin used the kick off for Bike to Work Week May 11-17 to announce a renewed effort to have Madison officially recognized as the best city in the U.S. for bicycling. This involves efforts to raise Madison’s status, as judged by the League, from Gold to Platinum.
Currently only four U.S. communities have achieved platinum status: Fort Collins and Boulder, Colorado; Davis, California and Portland, Oregon. Madison has held gold status since 2008.
The city has established an online tool to collect feedback about what makes Madison a great place to bike.
Looking for a Challenge this Summer?
The Wisconsin Bike Challenge began May 1st and runs through September 30th. Last year Wisconsin racked up nearly 2.5 million miles. This year’s goal is to hit 3 million miles. So sign up and start riding.
Transportation in the News
Indiana – Six counties in Indiana – Marion, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Delaware and Madison – can now opt to conduct voter referendums on funding mass transit programs, primarily from increases in local income taxes. County councils in the six designated counties will ultimately have to decide whether to hold county-wide referendums for mass transit. It is unlikely local governments will bring the issue before the voters this November.
Legislative compromise paved the way for Governor Pence’s (R) signature. In explaining his decision to sign the measure, Pence said he is a “firm believer in local control” and that decisions on economic development and quality of life are best made at the local level.
Missouri – The Missouri General Assembly has approved a measure that would allow voters to weigh in on a temporary sales tax to fund transportation projects across the state.
If approved by the voters, the constitutional amendment would impose a three-quarter-cent sales tax beginning January 1, 2015 and continuing for 10 years. It’s estimated to generate $534 million annually, 90% for state transportation projects and 10% for local transportation needs.
State transportation officials say the road budget will shrink considerably without a new revenue source.
This measure came on the heels of the Missouri Legislature overriding Governor Nixon’s veto of an income tax cut. The measure will appear on the November ballot unless Governor Jay Nixon (D) chooses to schedule it for an August election.
New Hampshire – Governor Maggie Hassan (D) recently signed into law a measure to raise the state gas tax by 4.2 cents a gallon starting July 1. The increase is expected to raise an additional $33 million a year for state roads and bridges. New Hampshire’s gas tax is currently 18 cents and was last increased in 1991.
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation has launched a website where the public can find detailed information on road and bridge work funded by the increase in the gas tax.
Interesting News Coverage
Forbes.com, May, 2014 – "Why proposed rule to increase freight rail competition would hurt railroads and customers"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 19, 2014 – “State to spend $13.5 million on transit to settle Zoo Interchange suit”
The Baltimore Sun editorial, May 13, 2014 – “The toll on U.S. roads”
Transport Topics.com opinion, May 12, 2014 –"Intermodal: An infrastructure success story”
The Bond Buyer.com, May 5, 2014 – “Two reports detail Highway Trust Fund problems, alternatives”
The New York Times.com, May 4, 2014 – “The toll of ‘No new taxes’”
WisPolitics.com/WisBusiness.com: Future of Transportation II
Wednesday, June 4
D.J. Bordini Center, Fox Valley Technical College
-- Featuring U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, vice chair of the House Highways Subcommittee--
Lunch begins at 11:30 a.m. The program goes from Noon to 1:15 p.m. Congressman Ribble's address will be followed by a panel discussion.
Price: $24 at the door/$18 if paid in advance.
ADVANCE REGISTRATION: click here and write "June 4 Ribble'' on the "purpose of payment" line.
The event is sponsored by the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Transportation Development Association and the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.
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