Declining Transportation Funding Worries DOT Officials
Written By: Logan Carlson
Faced with a potential $600 million deficit during the next biennium budget, Department of Transportation officials are traveling the state to hear from business leaders and community members about responsible and equitable ways to fund future transportation projects.
As vehicles continue to become more fuel efficient, the state is bringing in less revenue from gasoline taxes and is forced to rely on bonding for a large percentage of its budget in recent years.
“We’re seeing more vehicles on the road that are hybrids, electric vehicles. Just your regular gas-powered cars are getting much better fuel economy,” said Mark Gottlieb, secretary of the Department of Transportation.
“We project that over the next 10 years, the fuel economy of the vehicle fleet in the state is going to increase by 20 percent. If people drive 20 percent more fuel efficient cars, and drive the same number of miles, that’s 20 percent less revenue that we’re going to get into the transportation fund through fuel taxes,” he said.
Gottlieb said the percentage of the budget going toward debt service payments has increased from 6 percent a decade ago to 17 percent this year. At current borrowing levels, by 2023 it will be more than 25 percent, he said.
Between fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, two revenue sources for the DOT that don’t increase with inflation, Gottlieb said the department expects to receive about a 1 percent increase in total revenue from those sources during the next decade.
A 2013 report from a specially appointed commission tasked with developing options for maintaining and expanding Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure didn’t necessarily resonate with legislators in Madison.
The report called for a combination of raising the state’s gasoline tax by 5 cents, starting a new program that would tax drivers 1.02 cents for every mile they drive above 3,000 miles a year, and returning inflation indexing to both the gasoline tax and the state’s vehicle registration fees. All told, the average driver in Wisconsin would end up paying about $210 more than they currently do, according to the report.
But the recommendations failed to garner support from legislators in Madison after the report was released.
“There’s not one (recommendation) that’s popular,” said Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield and an executive at Roehl Transportation. “Whenever it comes down to these things, none of these issues are easy.”
Another option discussed has been the implementation of toll roads in the state. To do so, Wisconsin would need approval from the federal government.
Spiros cautioned against this approach, saying he feared it only would add more costs to businesses and might dissuade them from relocating to the state.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she understands concerns from members of the public about the possibility of increased costs associated with owning and operating a vehicle.
“This is a really critical issue for Wisconsin in terms of our economy for the next few decades,” Shankland said. “Unless (the public) understands the value of the investment in our infrastructure, they’re probably going to say no.”
Shankland criticized the tax cut packages passed by Republicans earlier this year and said she felt the projected budget surplus could have been used to help fund some of the transportation projects being developed.
“Instead of passing these small tax cuts during an election year, and then asking people to pay later, let’s start funding our transportation budget and stop bonding,” she said. “I’ve had far more conversations with local officials and town associations than what I’ve had in Madison. We need to get more serious about this situation.”