Transportation

Wisconsin's transportation system needs a lot of work, which will require a lot of money. A higher gas tax -- the first increase in more than a decade -- is the easiest way to bring in more revenue in a fair and responsible way.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

Gov. Scott Walker last week said he’s open to raising Wisconsin’s gas tax for the first time in more than a decade.

That’s good, because Wisconsin’s transportation system definitely needs more investment. Wisconsin’s roads are the worst in the Midwest, according to a state audit, and nearly the worst in the nation.

We just hope the governor is serious this time about collecting more revenue for highway repairs and improvements. In the past, he hasn’t followed through — even when his demand to offset any increase with reductions in other state taxes has been granted.

Gov. Walker sees an opportunity for more money from the federal government in President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan to improve America’s infrastructure. As outlined in his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump envisions $200 billion in higher federal spending on transportation needs, with the rest of the $1.5 trillion coming from state, local and private sources.

Gov. Walker told reporters last week he’s willing to raise the state’s gas tax if that will help leverage more money from the federal government for construction work here in Wisconsin. But he added his familiar caveat that any increase in fees on motorists much be offset by tax cuts elsewhere.

That last requirement should be easy to fulfill. After all, the governor just proposed a $100-per-child tax credit in his recent State of the State speech. And if that isn’t enough, the governor during his speech touted $8 billion in tax cuts he has delivered during his two terms in office. Most of those savings went to manufacturers and industry. But some went to ordinary people who got breaks on their income and property taxes.

So the burden on taxpayers is already down, leaving plenty of room for a modest increase in the state’s gas tax, which is really just a user fee on motorists to help pay for roads.

Wisconsin’s gas tax has been 32.9 cents per gallon since 2006 — despite rising construction costs due to inflation and heavier traffic. The state’s other major source of income for roads, a $75 vehicle registration fee on most vehicles (though hybrids pay more), hasn’t increased since 2008.

To get by, Gov. Walker and the Republican-run Legislature have borrowed billions of dollars in recent years, including $400 million in the current state budget.

That’s not sustainable, because more and more road revenue will be eaten up by higher debt payments.

Raising the state’s gas tax is the simplest solution to ensuring a fiscally sound future. Other options for a better transportation system include electronic tolling on the interstates (which would bring in more money from tourists and trucks) or a mileage-based charge (which would treat most vehicles the same, regardless of the fuel they consume).

What doesn’t make financial sense is more borrowing for roads while highway conditions continue to deteriorate. We hope the governor is finally getting serious about paying for better roads with real money.

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