Credit the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee for keeping two vital road projects on pace in south-central Wisconsin: the reconstruction of Highway 151 (Verona Road) south of Madison’s Beltline, and the expansion of Interstate 39-90 from Madison to Beloit.
Unfortunately, top GOP lawmakers agreed to borrow more than $400 million over the next two years to help make that happen. And they cut $79 million for state highway rehabilitation while delaying some big projects in southeastern Wisconsin.
Overall, the state’s road system — already one of the worst in the nation — is expected to further deteriorate under this state budget, according to state Department of Transportation predictions last year that were based on status quo funding.
Gov. Scott Walker is the main impediment to better roads. He has refused to raise the state gas tax or vehicle registration fee, even though they’ve been flat for the last decade. He also has ignored suggestions from his own DOT for modernizing the state’s revenue stream to reflect changing technology.
The closest the budget committee came last week to trying to fix an ongoing funding gap between transportation needs and stalled revenue is a $2.5 million study of open-road tolling on major highways, and higher fees on hybrid and electric vehicles.
Tolling the interstates could bring in tens of billions of dollars over time for better roads, with more money coming from Illinois tourists and over-the-road trucks.
But for the next two years, Republican lawmakers are planning — yet again, and largely at the governor’s direction — to punt the state’s transportation funding shortfall into the future.
Attracting lots of attention is a higher state fee on hybrid and electric vehicles. Republicans on the budget committee voted last week to double the state charge on hybrid vehicles from $75 to $150, and to increase the fee on electric vehicles from $75 to $175. The state fee for cars that run solely on gasoline would stay at $75.
The higher fees on battery-powered vehicles, which run partly or entirely on electricity, would bring in just $8.4 million over 18 months, under the budget committee’s plan. The new revenue would come from a few thousand electric vehicles and about 70,000 hybrids that tend to be more popular in urban counties.
Some critics say the new fee is targeted at liberal Madison and Milwaukee, where hybrid and electric vehicles are popular. But the county with the third highest concentration of such cars is conservative Waukesha County.
Moreover, the DOT projects that, over the next decade, the number of electric vehicles will increase to 200,000, while hybrids will jump to 140,000. That would bring in more than $30 million a year from the higher fees, but it also would further erode state gas tax revenue.
So overall, the Republican-run Legislature hasn’t come close to fixing its chronic road funding problem. The governor has decided the political advantage of saying “no” to any new taxes or fees affecting most drivers is better than properly maintaining a modern road system for our economy.
The transportation budget heading to the governor’s desk once again dodges fiscal responsibility in favor of political expediency.