MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. —  It looks like Gov. Tony Evers will have to change his feisty slogan from “Fix the Damn Roads” to “Fix the Damn Roads … and Spend More Money On Transit … and Harbors … and Maybe Even Milwaukee’s Boondoggle Streetcar.”

On Thursday, DOT Secretary Craig Thompson announced that $75 million originally targeted for local road improvement would be rolled into a grant program for anything from Milwaukee’s trolley to bike paths.

No matter. He stole the original salty pitch from fellow Dem, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, anyway.  

On Thursday, Evers’ Transportation Secretary, Craig Thompson, announced that $75 million originally targeted for local road improvement projects would be rolled into a competitive grant program for any number of transportation proposals.

Could that include more cash for mass transit in Milwaukee and Madison? You bet. Bike Paths? Sure. Pedestrian facilities? Why not. 

Even Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s money suck of a streetcar, The Hop? Yes, Thompson said. 

“If the city of Milwaukee put together a proposal for the pot of money that goes to the cities and villages and it is scored well on economic criteria, they could be awarded, yes,” Thompson said Thursday at a Capitol press conference. 

Surrounded by smiling representatives of Wisconsin’s counties, towns, and municipalities, Thompson said that “pot of money” would be divvied up among local governments. While the “vast majority” of the supplemental funds will go to local roads, the DOT “wants to open it up to all modes,” Thompson said. 

Grants would be funded on a 90 percent/10 percent state-local match, with approximately $29 million marked for towns, about $19 million for municipalities, and another $23 million-plus for counties. 

Grant application review panels will score project proposals on economic and community impact. 

For Evers, Wisconsin’s top Democrat, money for Milwaukee’s downtown streetcar, perhaps to expand the track to the gilded new arena where the Democratic Party will hold its 2020 presidential nominating convention, exudes impact. 

It certainly does for Milwaukee Mayor and Hop cheerleader in chief, Tom Barrett, who this week boasted about how popular the choo-choo is even as he begs the City Council to unleash more streetcar funding. 

The discretionary transportation spending did not sit well with many Republicans, who suffered the slings and arrows of the so-called “Scottholes” ad campaign targeting the GOP and former Gov. Scott Walker for what critics insisted was a failure to adequately fund and, well “fix the damn roads.” The criticism blamed Republicans for not prioritizing local road repair. 

“People in my district told me to fix the roads. @GovEvers robbing money we set aside for local roads to fund the Milwaukee streetcar is not what they were looking for,” Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) tweeted. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald seemed to be rallying support Thursday for a challenge to Evers’ veto.

“The governor is taking money from local road construction to fund Milwaukee’s trolley to nowhere. Rural Dems should push back – veto override!” the Juneau Republican said in a tweet. Crickets from rural Democrats.

Asked by MacIver News Service about the perceived disconnect between Evers’ insistence on more funding for roads and the DOT’s broader grant program, Thompson said the governor tried. 

“We could have fixed even more (roads) if the Legislature had passed the (transportation budget) that he had,” the DOT secretary said. “But it didn’t mean that he didn’t have any other priorities as well. 

“These other modes of transportation, if they can demonstrate economic benefit, then we need to look at that as well with the money from this one-time program.” 

Evers proposed a nearly 10-cent increase in the state gas tax, with an annual bump based on inflation, to fund Wisconsin’s transportation department. Republicans eschewed that plan, instead finding increased funding partially through fee hikes. The Republican budget delivered $553 million more in all-funds transportation spending, including $106 million in general purpose revenue. 

As they did in much of the recently signed 2019-21 state budget, Evers and the Legislature’s Republican majority generally came to terms on transportation funding. That included $320 million for the State Highway Rehabilitation Program. The two sides also agreed on a 10 percent increase in General Transportation Aid moving forward. And they met in the middle on bonding for passenger rail service, with the Legislature ultimately approving $25 million. 

Where the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature parted company was in the Local Roads Improvement Funding program. The Joint Finance Committee proposed $90 million in one-time general purpose revenue for local road projects. Evers vetoed the measure, lowering the total to $75 million. He needed the money for education, which already had received a record $655 million in additional general purpose revenue on a $15.2 billion budget. 

Evers also vetoed out the language that the $75 million in supplemental transportation funding would go only to local road improvement projects. 

Thompson said it would have been irresponsible to use one-time money exclusively for road projects that require a more sustainable revenue stream. 

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans weren’t buying it.

“After saying he wanted to fix the ‘damn’ roads, Governor Tony Evers vetoed the part of the #wibudget that included additional funds for the Local Road Improvement Program. He also removed the restrictions that the funding be used for local road projects, essentially creating a slush fund for DOT to use on projects it prioritizes,” the GOP wrote on its Facebook page following Evers vetoes. 

At least one Republican was feeling better after learning about the DOT’s transportation grant process. 

“When the Governor issued his vetoes, I was concerned about the cut he made and his veto of our process to distribute the money. He slashed $15 million from the $90 million plan and also vetoed all of the language that created the process for local governments to acquire the funding,” Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) said in a press release. “I was very concerned that all of the funding was going to be spent on buses, trolleys and urban roads which would not impact the communities I serve.”

“Today’s announcement returns much of our plan for the remaining $75 million in the state budget after the Governor’s cut. Towns, counties, villages and cities will be eligible for the same percentages of the funding that we approved in the legislature’s version of the budget,” Marklein added. “The biggest differences are the reduced funding and that transit projects and other non-road transportation projects will also be eligible. However, they will only be funded through the allocation for the specific type of municipality that applies.”

Thompson calls it all a good “first step” on the road to a sustainable transportation budget, which means the DOT will be coming back hat in hand in two years. 

Ultimately that’s what Evers’ pilfered slogan, “Fix the damn roads” is all about: More money. A lot more money for an agency that has not been a very good steward of taxpayer money. More than two years after an audit found the DOT had wasted or badly managed billions of transportation dollars, reforms and accountability measures have been hard to come by. 

As Evers and the road builder lobby go about drumming up support for more transportation funding, perhaps they should consider a new slogan: Fix the damn DOT.  

MacIver Institute photo

M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. Reposted with permission.