The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) recently released its Transportation Budget Trends publication for 2018-2019. The document contains a number of metrics that show transportation spending broken down several different ways. While dollars spent do not necessarily equate to lane miles created or maintained, the report’s general theme is that Wisconsin is borrowing less and spending prudently to meet transportation needs.
In real dollar amounts, Wisconsin, under Governor Scott Walker and a Republican legislature, is spending 4.1 percent more in state dollars on transportation than the state spent in 2006 – the report’s baseline year. While the report does not measure the cost impact of efficiencies and better prioritization of transportation projects, the DOT’s record on this point, particularly over the last couple of years, is impressive.
In fiscal year 2017 alone, for example, the DOT achieved cost savings of $127.2 million in projects put out for bid thanks to negotiations with contractors. The department has achieved millions of dollars in savings from operational efficiencies all the while overseeing an acceleration of the I-94 North/South project, completion of the core Zoo Interchange, 100 percent funding of the local bridge program, and increases in general transportation aids for local governments, among other accomplishments. Elimination of state prevailing wage requirements has also allowed DOT to save money on construction and maintenance costs.
Critics of Gov. Walker and the DOT, however, have claimed that the state is bonding too much for transportation and spending too little compared to Gov. Jim Doyle’s final budgets. Neither claim is honest.
According to the Transportation Budget Trends report, transportation bonding for state fiscal year 2019 is down 89.5 percent from baseline year 2006. Using the last year impacted by a Doyle budget, 2010, as a baseline, transportation borrowing is down 85 percent. Zeroing in on the Major Highway Development fund, bonding will only account for 22.3 percent of spending in 2019 as opposed to 61.8 percent of spending in 2006.
It is true that Gov. Doyle’s last two budgets contained particularly large amounts of spending on transportation. That should come as no surprise given the fact that the Obama administration poured billions of dollars into so-called stimulus spending across the country. From 2009 through 2010, $529.1 million of one-time federal stimulus funds flooded the Doyle transportation budget. Republicans at the time warned that the influx of cash could not be counted on for future budgeting.
In 2011, now-Speaker Robin Vos criticized Doyle-era budgeting in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial. “We were a state where legislatures refused to tackle the mountain of debt and only used accounting gimmicks or one-time stimulus money to put off paying our bills,” he wrote.
The gimmicks employed by Doyle included routinely raiding the transportation fund to spend on other priorities. Under his four budgets, Doyle took $1.3 billion away from transportation priorities. Republicans have since rectified this egregious error, and it means that amounts spent through the transportation fund under Doyle are not reflective of actual transportation spending.
Finally, as the transportation debate continues it is important to remember that raising the gas tax is not a panacea. Raising the gas tax by 1 cent per gallon would generate only $33.4 million for the state, a far cry from the fix-all it is touted to be.
Suggesting that Wisconsin should raise its gas tax because neighboring states have higher gas taxes is illogical. Property taxpayers in Illinois on average pay significantly higher taxes than Wisconsin property taxpayers. But Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans have worked hard to reduce property taxes.
Democratic candidates this year have made raising the gas tax a centerpiece of their transportation policy agenda, Republicans should not follow their lead.
Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) represents Wisconsin’s 20th senate district.