Republican Gov. Scott Walker's executive budget will provide about $500 million more for transportation projects ranging from rebuilding a badly congested Milwaukee interchange to filling State Patrol vacancies, his office said Friday.
Walker's two-year spending plan will devote about $6.4 billion to transportation work, up from about $5.9 billion in the 2011-2013 budget, according to his office. The governor spent Friday traveling to news conferences in Pewaukee, Green Bay and Baraboo to announce the plan.
"We are investing in the long-term," Walker said in a statement. "An efficient, safe transportation system is necessary for growing our economy and creating jobs."
Most of the money will come from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, the state's traditional revenue stream for transportation work, said Jocelyn Webster, his spokeswoman in Madison. Bolstered by the state's $419 million surplus, the governor also plans to use $129 million from the state's general account, draw $32 million from the petroleum inspection fund and $662 million in new bonding.
Walker's statement said the budget will devote $550 million toward rebuilding the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee, the spot where interstates 94 and 894 intersect with U.S. Highway 45. About $307 million of that would come from bonds.
Walker also promised to allocate $236 million for work on Milwaukee's Hoan Bridge, with about $200 million coming through bonds; $10.7 million for grants to improve commercial harbors; $60 million in bonds for preserving railroad tracks; $55 million more for road maintenance; an additional $800,000 in disaster aid; and $2.7 million to train State Patrol recruits.
Wisconsin has been grappling with how to pay for its roads, harbors and airports in recent years. The state primarily uses the gas tax and vehicle registration fees to pay for work, but tax revenue has been declining as more drivers turn to more fuel-efficient vehicles and drive less.
A bipartisan task force the Legislature created to study transportation funding warned last month that debt service on transportation bonds could consume 25 percent of transportation revenues by 2023. Still, the group recommended the state take advantage of low interest rates, calling bonds a useful tool to fund long-lived projects.
Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, said he was worried the bonding Walker wants would exacerbate that debt.
"Wow. That's a lot of credit card spending on roads," Mason said. "I'm worried about the wisdom of taking that approach on the long-term fiscal health of the state."
Walker said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that he will propose selling state property, including power plants, to help pay for general obligation bonds issued for transportation spending starting with the Zoo Interchange project. Any state property that's sold would have to be through a competitive bid process, he said.
"We want an open, transparent process," Walker said.
Walker included a provision in his contentious bill stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights that would have permitted his administration to sell off the plants, but the language didn't make it into the final law.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, issued a statement praising the governor's plans. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, didn't immediately return a message.
The task force also has recommended raising the gas tax by 5 cents to 35.9 cents a gallon and creating a new mileage-based registration fee of 1.02 cents per mile up to 20,000 miles for cars and light trucks, a departure from the current flat $75 fee. But Walker and GOP leaders have rejected those ideas out of hand.
Walker is scheduled to release his full budget on Wednesday. The Legislature's finance committee will revise the plan and send it on to the full state Senate and Assembly for approval. From there it will go back to Walker for his signature. The whole process is expected to take most of the spring.
— Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.