Guest Column from Rep. Jim Steineke - Let’s Find a Long-Term Solution to Transportation Shortfall

February 12, 2015

A strong transportation system is a lifeline for a successful and growing economy. Highways, railways, roads and bridges are an integral aspect to our everyday lives. We all know that transportation infrastructure needs constant upkeep though. As Assembly Republicans begin to work on the 2015-2017 state budget, one of the biggest challenges we are facing is a transportation fund that is short on money while projects keep accumulating.

The challenge that lies before us has been a long time in the making. The trouble started under the previous administration when Governor Doyle took money that belonged in the segregated transportation fund and redirected it to other expenses. Since 2003, $1.3 billion has been taken from the fund. It’s no surprise that ten-year projections indicate a $6 billion shortfall.

Under Governor Walker’s proposed transportation budget plan, his solution is to increase bonding. There’s no increase in funding or change in funding mechanisms that would strengthen the fund now or in the future. The total bonding for transportation in the biennium would be $1.3 billion, up from $991 million in the last biennium.

Assembly Republicans are understandably concerned about this direction. We were all elected to make tough decisions that will put Wisconsin on a solid financial foundation for future generations. Bonding is not a long-term solution. Continued reliance on bonding means that our overall debt service increases. Currently, 17 cents out of every dollar spent on transportation goes towards our debt service. If the budget passes as proposed, 25 cents out of every dollar would go towards debt service. When you add this all up, it diverts a considerable amount of cash that could be used to fund state and local programs.

Any serious discussion on our transportation shortfall needs to include the necessity of making changes to ensure that every dollar that is spent on transportation is spent wisely. We need to maximize the impact of every tax dollar our constituents send to Madison. This will involve reviewing projects and eliminating unnecessary expenses wherever possible. It will also include a discussion on modifying or eliminating the prevailing wage requirements. Prevailing Wage is an artificial rate set by the government that contractors are required to pay their workers when bidding on publically-funded construction projects. Essentially, it’s government intruding into the private sector and creating financial hurdles for local governments. Repealing prevailing wage laws would save our state millions of dollars each year. These savings would help alleviate some of our transportation costs.

After ensuring our transportation spending is as efficient as possible, we will likely still not have enough resources to keep up with our transportation demands. There are many funding sources that have been discussed to stabilize the transportation fund for the future. The Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission has suggested funding alternatives such as raising the state gas tax by five cents per gallon and creating a new mileage-based registration fee for passenger vehicles. While I will always have reservations with any attempt to raise taxes or fees on Wisconsin residents, I believe that all options should be debated and analyzed during the upcoming months as the budget process continues.

One thing is certain, because of the Legislature's actions over the last two terms that allowed citizens of this state to overwhelmingly pass a constitutional amendment that protects the transportation fund from future raids, you can rest assured that every transportation-related tax or fee will go to improve our roads, highways and bridges.

Wisconsin’s transportation budget must be kept solvent, and we need to find a funding solution for transportation that addresses the immediate problem, not one that relies solely on bonds that have to be paid off over a number of years. Assembly Republicans are ready to tackle this problem in a manner that does not burden future generations.