You Can’t Get There From Here

I lived for a short while in Maine and often heard people, only half-jokingly, say “You can’t get there from here.”  Unfortunately, for many of us in Northern Wisconsin, it’s getting to the point where it’s less of a joke and more of a truth.  

A new study from the WI Department of Transportation shows that transportation funding has fallen in nearly every category since the Governor took office in 2011.  Some examples from the study: Going into this most recent state budget, highway improvement, local road assistance and major highway development funding had all fallen in 2017 dollars.  Modest changes in the budget did not reverse this trend.  To borrow a phrase, everything that should be up, is down, and everything that should be down, is up.

What’s gone up?  Debt service, which has skyrocketed over 60% since 2011.  These are dollars sent to cover borrowing that can’t go to roads, bridges, rail lines, bike paths, highway connections -- or to an overpass that high-schoolers from one community in Northwest Wisconsin advocated for as a safer alternative during a Madison visit several years ago. 

Almost everyone has stories of the challenges of travelling around our communities.  Yet over half of the counties in our Northwestern Wisconsin district are getting less in local road aids than they received in 2011, with Ashland, Iron and Price among the 10 worst hit in lost aid.   As we face once-rare flooding events more frequently, it was especially alarming to see $90 million shifted from highway rehabilitation funds across the state to the FoxConn boondoggle.  As local and state workers struggle valiantly to repair the roads that connect our communities and our lives, aerial photos of the FoxConn site showed brand new culverts being put into place on and around a dirt field hundreds of miles (and billions of dollars) away.

This isn’t a problem that snuck up unexpectedly.  It’s been four years since an expert commission released a study that showed a nearly $7 billion deficit in the Transportation Fund by 2023 and debt service payments that will consume a quarter of the budget by that year.

Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues who’ve written four years of budgets since then have taken a different view.  As of the current GOP state budget they have devoted two out of every ten dollars in the Transportation Fund to debt service rather than infrastructure.

Fully one year after that budget was signed, the Governor finally hinted at a future plan for the roads we all rely on: floating a plan to reduce standards for future highways by building fewer lanes.  Former Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, who served in the Walker Administration from the beginning, decried that plan as likely to increase congestion and cause the state to spend billions on “designs that will be obsolete the day they are built.” 

We didn’t hear much about the state having a “spending problem” when the Governor signed the largest giveaway to a foreign corporation in history.  We only hear that line when it comes to things hard-working taxpayers rely on, like our roads.   

We can get to a solution from here.  It’s time to stop putting foreign corporations first, it’s time to do what experts and high school students told us needed to be done four years ago and it’s high time to stop wasting more and more on debt and put our Transportation dollars into Transportation as you, the voters, demanded four years ago.