State roads deteriorate as repair financing stalls

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

More than 60 billion miles were travelled on Wisconsin roads last year, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. That’s more than double the number of miles that were driven in 1970.

Since then state population has increased by 30 percent to 5.7 million persons. Total mileage driven in Wisconsin is up 550 million from 2013. State experts said a growing population and more commercial vehicles are elements in the increase in total miles.

Little wonder then that roads and streets maintained by local jurisdictions are needing significant repairs. Meanwhile the state has launched expansion and reconstruction of major highways in the state. Several of these arteries are decades old and showing their age, something acerbated by heavier use.

Financing these growth and repair needs is a multiple-sided political issue. A larger number of fuel-efficient vehicles have limited revenue growth from gasoline taxes. Then there are the complaints of local government officials that they are getting a declining share of tax revenues. That reflects the need for hundreds of millions of dollars needed for major projects across the state.

Six cities, three counties and one town are collecting wheel taxes to help finance road needs, according to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. A 1983 law allows any municipal government to adopt a flat registration fee for car and trucks of not more than 8,000 pounds that are normally kept within its jurisdiction. The weight limit would exempt many trucks.

Iowa County, the Town of Arena and the cities of Appleton, Beloit, Gillett, and Milwaukee impose a $20 annual vehicle fee. St. Croix and Chippewa Counties, and the cities of Janesville and Kaukauna have a $10 annual fee, according to the League.

Gov. Scott Walker has opposed increasing statewide transportation taxes and fees. He wants to get more money for roads by borrowing an additional $200 mil- lion for the major projects. The 2015-2017 budget bill he signed provided $500 million in road borrowing and an additional $350 million in potential borrowing.

Approval of the Legislature’s budget committee is required for the additional borrowing. Votes on the issue were expected before Thanksgiving. There were suggestions in October that Republicans, who have large majorities in both houses of the Legislature, might need Democratic votes to approve the additional borrowing.

State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chair of the budget committee, suggested that approach. “I expect Democrats to do what is right for their constituents,” he said.

The governor’s opposition to higher registration fees or fuel taxes has been seen by some as part of his futile bid for the Republican nomination for president. Higher taxes or fees could have hurt his hopes to be the hero of the Republican Tea Party folks.

His position just to borrow more money has perplexed many in the State Capitol. Early in the struggle, the road building industry suggested the state cut back on its big projects until it finds a permanent solution to financial needs.

The potential solutions haven’t changed much. There appears to be public support for toll roads but Congressional approval would be needed. Increases in fuel taxes and registration fees are the key elements in a possible permanent solution, with business leaders preferring fee increases rather than high gasoline taxes. Local wheel taxes represent but a bandaid.

Whatever the solution it will need Walker’s blessing to win approval.

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