“Revising and Extending” My Transportation Comments

In writing here about transportation finance for the last three-plus years, I have relied heavily on reports from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB). Once Mark Gottlieb’s tenure as Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary ended, LFB reports often have been the sole source of reliable government information on the issue.

So I should have spent more time examining current LFB budget papers, issued last week, on the highway program. Owing to a cursory review, I drew conclusions in a recent RightWisconsin post that I need to revisit.

I began the piece as follows:

While details remain to be worked out, one thing is clear about whatever transportation package Governor Tony Evers eventually signs:  it won’t be enough.

That remains true. Where I erred was in suggesting that the Evers Administration had dropped the ball when it comes to reconstruction of freeways in southeastern Wisconsin (and elsewhere in the state).  I specifically stated as a given that Evers had put that key program “in limbo.” That assertion needs to be revisited.

The following information — which I selectively quoted — is provided in one of several LFB papers.  After identifying Evers’ current focus on repair of state highways other than freeways, LFB writes:

DOT has also stressed that southeast Wisconsin freeway mega-projects and major highway development projects must also be funded at a sufficient level in order to avoid spillover effects that would negatively affect [out-state] highway conditions over time.

Although [these major and mega-project] programs typically deal with capacity expansion issues, funding [them] eliminates some of the highway rehabilitation program needs associated with those redeveloped highways.

Absent sufficient funding for the majors and mega-projects programs, additional pressure would be placed on state highway rehabilitation program funding, primarily due to significant age-related infrastructure issues in the southeast region of the state, as well as other parts of the state.

My recent post included only the last of those three paragraphs, thus neglecting the fact that DOT itself had identified the importance of funding freeway reconstruction. This recognition by the Evers Administration of unmet future needs is illustrated by this from LFB:

{T]o avoid drawing additional resources from statewide state highway rehabilitation programming, DOT estimates that the [southeastern mega programs} would require…$206.4 million in the 2019-21 biennium, $343.6 million in 2021-23, and $350 million annually thereafter for the southeast mega-projects program.

I asked DOT Secretary Craig Thompson how those current and future needs compare with proposed funding in the current budget.  He said “for SE Megas we are proposing about $155 million annually [in the current budget] and need about $350 million annually moving forward to get SE Interstates done over the next 20 years.”  

A 20-year schedule for completing southeastern Wisconsin freeway modernization and reconstruction is a substantial commitment. It signals a clear recognition by the Evers Administration that it intends to reverse Governor Scott Walker’s agenda of indefinite delay for that work.

Out-state legislators who believe these largely urban/metro needs don’t affect them are wrong. As the LFB stresses, without adequate funding for such projects as freeway reconstruction:

DOT will likely need to fund significant amounts of highway and bridge rehabilitation work using the state highway rehabilitation program, which would reduce the available state highway funding for other areas of the state.

What remains correct about my earlier piece is that funding levels now being debated for 2019-21 are clearly inadequate to address known needs.

But DOT and Evers get that, and I erred in suggesting otherwise. It means whatever package is okayed this time around merely sets the stage for yet another major debate in 2021-23.