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News Show Visits La Crosse County, Highlights Challenges to Maintain Road Conditions
WisconsinEye, a statewide public policy platform, visited La Crosse County to see how limited funding has impacted the county’s ability to keep up with deteriorating highways and bridges.
La Crosse County Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain took WisconsinEye’s Steve Walters on a tour of county transportation infrastructure, including the Hwy. X bridge over Halfway Creek that has crumbling concrete and exposed rebar.
The county has $68 million in unfunded needs in the current 5-year plan according to Chamberlain. Given the amount of funding available, many roads that should be reconditioned will only receive a “Band-Aid.”
Encouraging Words, Follow Through Needed
By Craig Thompson, TDA Executive Director
The 2015-17 transportation budget wasn’t really put to bed until the Joint Finance Committee acted on some contingency bonding that was set aside for its approval. There was a tremendous amount of coverage of what turned out to be a bipartisan vote of 10-6 to approve the $350 million in contingency bonds earlier this month.
All four Democrats on the committee voted along with the six Assembly Republicans to release the bonds which will mitigate the delay of five major projects and keep many highway rehabilitation projects on schedule.
What was even more fascinating than the bipartisan nature of the vote, however, was the arguments made by those voting yes and no. The Democratic members that were voting yes said they were doing so reluctantly because this is a stop gap measure when we should be settling on a more sustainable long-term funding source.
The Senate Republicans who all voted against the contingency bonding argued that we should not be relying on issuing more debt and should instead settle upon a more sustainable funding regime for our transportation system.
One could argue the recently passed budget presented the opportunity to do just that. However, the encouraging part is that apparently the necessity of securing more sustainable funding for our transportation needs has been acknowledged.
Following the vote, Senator Darling stated in a Wisconsin State Journal article, “We can’t kick the can down the road any longer. I know we’ve said that before – but we can’t.” She went on to say, “Many people look at a gas tax as a user fee. I think we should have all the options on the table.”
Regarding the state gas tax, the other co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, Representative John Nygren said, “We might need to revisit where ours is at,” noting that neighboring states Michigan and Iowa recently increased their gas tax rate.
Democratic Representative Robb Kahl has introduced a bill in the Assembly that would restore gas tax indexing, and Democratic Senator John Erpenbach has indicated that he plans to introduce legislation that will look at adjusting the gas tax as well.
It is a shame that we did not find consensus on a sustainable way to fund transportation in the recently passed budget. It was a missed opportunity. We can’t let that happen next time.
Over the course of the next year, TDA will be out and about in every region of this state to reinforce that message and make sure that there is no amnesia come next budget.
Fond du Lac Exec Responds to Local Roads Versus Highways Story
Last weekend, a guest editorial from Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel ran in nine Gannet papers. The column, “Don’t pit local roads against state highways,” was a response to a column by Gannett Wisconsin Media’s Robert Mentzer headlined, “$200M for highways while local roads languish.”
The premise of the Mentzer column was straight from the 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, WisPIRG and Sierra Club playbook: “The road builders, demonstrably by their actions, don’t care so much about the deteriorating state of local roads and the potholes on our local commutes. Let the cities and villages and rural towns worry about that. The road builders want to make big roads bigger.”
As proof of this, Mentzer cited the recent action by the Joint Finance Committee to approve the contingency bonding while locals got nothing. Mentzer failed to mention that only the highway program had been cut in the recently passed budget and cut significantly. He also naively took at face value the 1,000 Friends interpretation of the vote by the Senate Republicans on JFC in contrast to their actual words.
Buechel's response pointed out the fallacy of this either or proposition. “Are locals getting enough funding for our roads? No. Is too much falling on the property tax? Yes. However, some readers might come away from the column with the idea that there is enough money in the transportation fund for locals, but it is just being redirected to needless state highway expansion projects. That is not the case. There is not enough money in the fund because our elected state officials in Madison have lacked the political will for the past decade to adjust revenues to even keep up with inflation.”
These highways projects, vilified by Mentzer et al., are supported by local officials Buechel stated.
Progress on Federal Highway and Transit Bill
Congress is in the process of extending the authority to fund surface transportation programs through December 4. This is hoped to be the last short-term extension before the passage of a long-term bill.
A House-Senate conference committee is expected to resolve the differences between the House and Senate bills shortly after Thanksgiving break. Representative Reid Ribble representing Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District has been appointed to serve on the committee.
The House bill largely maintains current funding levels, while the Senate bill modestly increases investment. Both bills authorize spending for six years. The Senate bill only identifies funding (or pay-fors) for three of years. The House version, however, includes most of the Senate pay-fors and also taps the Federal Reserve's capital surplus which could allow Congress to cover more years of funding.
The House pay-fors could cover spending for five years of the Senate’s higher levels or all six years of the House bill.
Transportation advocates have urged congressional leaders to boost program funding above the House's baseline levels, even if that means reauthorizing the Highway Trust Fund for fewer than six years.
Congress has not passed a transportation funding bill that last longer than two years since 2005.
Michigan Steps Up to Fund Transportation
On November 12, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a series of laws that will eventually provide an addition $1.2 billion annually to fund the state’s transportation infrastructure.
The package raises taxes and fees by $600 million a year and phases in a $600 million annual allocation of general fund revenue for transportation.
Specifically, the plan includes the following changes in 2017:
- Increases the state’s gasoline and diesel tax to 26.3 cents-per-gallon. This is a 7.3 cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax and an 11.3 cent-per-gallon increase in the tax on diesel.
- Applies the state motor fuel tax to alternative fuels.
- Establishes a dealer’s license for alternative fuels with a $500 fee.
- Raises the vehicle registration fee by 20%.
- Increases the registration fee for hybrid and electric vehicles.
The phase-in of the general fund revenue for transportation will not begin until 2018. And beginning in 2022, the state motor fuel tax will be indexed to inflation.
The plan was narrowly approved along party lines earlier in November. Republicans have the majority in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature.
So far this year, eight states have enacted laws with additional revenue for transportation: Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.
Transportation at the Ballot Box
Voters say Yes to Transportation in November – Election results show voters in eight states approved 70 percent of state or local transportation referendums. This rate of approval is in line with the average rate of passage over the last ten years.
Highlights of Major Initiatives
- Texas: Proposition 7 passed with 83%. This means when sales tax revenue exceeds $28 billion per fiscal year, the next $2.5 billion would go to road construction and maintenance starting in September 2017 and expiring at the end of fiscal year 2032. Beginning in September 2019 and continuing through fiscal year 2029, if tax revenue from vehicle sales and rentals exceeds $5 billion per fiscal year, 35 percent of the amount exceeding $5 billion would go to road funding.
- Washington: Seattle voters approved the extension of a property tax levy to fund the ambitious Move Seattle plan, Mayor Ed Murray’s ten-year transportation vision that integrates plans for transit, walking, biking, and freight. The proposed $930 million, nine-year levy will cost the average home owner $275/year, a $145 increase over the expiring Bridge the Gap levy. Final election returns show the initiative passed with 58%.
- Utah: 10 of 17 counties that put before the voters the option of a .25% local sales tax for transportation were successful. This local sales tax option was created as part of a comprehensive transportation package passed earlier this year by the Utah Legislature which included increasing the state gas tax and indexing it to inflation.
For a more complete analysis of the 37 referendums, click here to view the American Road &Transportation Builders Association’s analysis.
Gas Tax Vote Didn’t Hurt VA State Senators – As a follow up to a report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association released in May of this year showing that voting for a gas tax increase did not hurt legislators at the ballot box, ARTBA has now analyzed the results of the Virginia November election.
The 2015 general election was the first time Virginia senators faced reelection after passage of a 2013 bill that scrapped the flat state gas tax, raised the sales tax, created a tax on wholesale gas and diesel and charged a registration fee for hybrid, electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.
All sixteen senators who supported the transportation package and sought reelection – twelve Democrats and four Republican – were able to maintain their seats. As did the eleven senators – ten Republicans and one Democrat – who voted against the bill.
The report released earlier this year found 95 percent of all Republican state legislators and 88 percent of Democratic state legislators who voted to increase their state gas tax to fund transportation in 2013 and 2014 won their races.
Interesting News Coverage
La Crosse Tribune, November 15, 2015 – “Our View: Boost rail safety before luck runs out”
WKOW Capitol City Sunday, November 8, 2015 – Todd Berry of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance on taxes and transportation funding
Green Bay Press-Gazette, October 31, 2015 – “Invest in transportation infrastructure” Note: this is a guest column written by Jayme Sellen, government affairs director for the Greater Green Bay Chamber.
Calendar of Events
- Midwest Transportation Workforce Summit: December 7th-8th. Click here for more information and to register.
- TDA Fly-in 2016: April 6th-7th. Event information coming in early December!
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