Increase in gas tax, other vehicle fees proposed by commission

2013-01-24T11:55:00Z Increase in gas tax, other vehicle fees proposed by commissionDEE J. HALL | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6132

The typical vehicle owner would pay an extra $120 a year to drive in Wisconsin, under a package of recommendations proposed Wednesday by a state transportation commission.

The commission is asking lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker to adopt a 5-cent hike in the state gas tax, an increase in annual vehicle registration fees based on miles driven and a big jump in heavy truck registration fees.

But it's unclear whether the Republicans who run state government — who have been skeptical of raising fees and taxes — are receptive to the proposals.

Spokesmen for Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they would consider the proposals by the bipartisan Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, chaired by former GOP lawmaker and Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. The Assembly's top two Republicans, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said in a joint statement they want to fund highways without raising taxes.

"We will not support raising the gas tax or instituting mileage-based registration fees as a means to fund our roads," they said.

The measures are intended to add $480 million a year over 10 years to maintain the state's system of highways, transit, harbors, freight rail, airports and bicycle and pedestrian transportation. Without increased revenue, the commission said, major projects such as expansion of Interstate 39 from Madison to the Illinois border or the improvement of Highway 12 from Lake Delton to Sauk City could be delayed for years.

Commission members — six appointed by Walker in 2011 and the remaining four by the top legislative leaders — acknowledged it won't be easy to convince the governor and his fellow Republicans running the Legislature to raise taxes. Walker has indicated he would oppose any gas tax increase, currently at 51.3 cents a gallon including state and federal levies.

But commission member Bill Hanson, a Dodgeville farmer, said keeping up with transportation needs is vital to the state's agriculture, tourism and industry.

"Without the transportation system that we have, a lot of the things that we rely on for our economic engine will die," Hanson said at a Capitol press conference.

Transit advocates held their own press conference Wednesday to urge the Legislature to restore a $10 million cut to bus and paratransit systems enacted in the previous budget. The coalition of social justice groups also asked lawmakers to adopt commission recommendations to allow regions to form transit authorities that can, with voter approval, levy up to a 1/2-cent sales tax to fund local bus systems.

Jennifer Epps-Addison of Citizen Action of Wisconsin said bus riders and transit users are "no less important than people who drive cars."

Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, one of two self-described "token liberals" on the commission, also urged adoption of the recommendations. Cieslewicz said the proposals seek to broaden the funding base for transportation at a time when more fuel-efficient cars and less driving mean less gas tax revenue.

"I don't love everything in this report," Cieslewicz said. "This has more highway building in it than I would like. But on the whole it's an excellent report."

Commission member Marty Hanson, vice president of Ayres and Associates, an Eau Claire design consulting firm that works on transportation projects, said the "needs are real" and "the existing funding mechanism — primarily fuel tax — cannot sustain these needs in the long term."

The group also endorsed a constitutional amendment making its way through the Legislature that would prohibit the state from dipping into the transportation fund to pay for other needs, as former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle did to balance the state budget.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign criticized the amendment Wednesday, calling it a "constitutionally protected funding source" for the "pet programs" of unions, companies and trade groups that have donated $10.8 million to Walker and $5.2 million to state lawmakers since 2010.

One noticeably absent recommendation was for construction of toll roads. Commission member Barbara Fleisner LaMue, who works for the state's Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said the group debated the issue but current federal regulations allow tolling only if a state is adding lanes to an existing highway.

"The return on investment really was not worth it at this point," she said.

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