Note: See the follow-up, Revisiting the Likely Transportation Compromise.

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.

I assume:

  1. The governor’s proposal to add about $500 million of net new revenue is the upper limit of whatever agreement that he and the legislature reach.  
  2. The legislature agrees with the governor and puts southeastern Wisconsin freeway reconstruction in limbo once the Zoo Interchange and I-94 North-South are finished.

According to findings of two separate task forces (one in 2006 and a second, appointed by Governor Scott Walker, in 2013), the new money recommended by Evers is about a third of what’s needed. Unless those efforts — undertaken by separate individuals under different administrations — were misguided, Evers has proposed a plan that would be inadequate even if fully adopted.

As for southeastern Wisconsin freeways, a bipartisan plan adopted in the early 2000s anticipated completion of reconstruction by 2035. That plan has gone up in smoke following (in)action by the Walker Administration and the GOP legislature and, in the case of Milwaukee’s east-west freeway, opposition from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. There is no meaningful current schedule for this costly and unavoidable work. It likely will extend into the second half of this century. The extra costs will be in the billions.

Walker’s impact on the current debate remains substantial. Using his bully pulpit, he provided support for, and sided with, a faction of legislative Republicans who oppose raising the gas tax. (The former governor recently tweeted that Evers’ plan to raise the tax and index it is a “bad idea.”)

Walker further shaped the current debate by pitting out-state legislators against Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin, telling an Ashland audience three years ago that the way to avoid a tax increase was to stop Milwaukee area freeway work.  (Foxconn caused him to make an exception when it came to I-94 North-South.)

Excerpts from a nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau report issued last week highlight the impact of the agenda set by Walker (and partially accepted by Evers).  

First, it’s a fallacy to assume that southeastern Wisconsin freeways can be largely ignored without affecting out-state interests.

Here’s the LFB:

Absent sufficient funding for the majors and megaprojects 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.

Translation:  money otherwise available for out-state projects will be reduced to pay for temporary, short-term repaving of Milwaukee’s East -West freeway, I-43 north of Silver Spring, and I-94/43 from the airport to Silver Spring. As has been observed, this is like painting a house you know will be torn down.

And then there are aging bridges. Per LFB:

With regard to the age and condition of southeast Wisconsin freeways, DOT indicates that the interstate system in the seven-county, southeast mega-projects program area includes 710 bridges, of which 417 are the original bridges from when the system was initially constructed. Five corridors (I-94 East-West [Milwaukee County], I-894 Bypass, I-94 East-West freeway [Waukesha County], I-43 Howard to Silver Spring Drive, and I-41 Burleigh to the Richfield Interchange) make up 385 lane miles and 278 of the 710 bridges in DOT’s southeast region. On these five corridors alone, there are 278 bridges, of which 224 need to be replaced by 2040. These five corridors represent the next five southeast Wisconsin freeway megaprojects…[none of which have been enumerated].

Absent a serious schedule and funding plan for rebuilding the freeway corridors, these aging bridges will need to be replaced on a costly, case-by-case basis using dollars otherwise targeted for out-state work. The design of the replacement work will occur in a vacuum, as the underlying freeway reconstruction design will be unknown.

The last governor to provide straightforward leadership on transportation issues was Governor Tommy Thompson. Governor Jim Doyle made an election-year cave and signed a bill that ended gas tax indexing. He accompanied this with the start of the credit card binge that was continued by Walker and the GOP Legislature. And now Evers has offered up an inadequate plan.

When a deal is cut later this year, and the various parties slap each other on the back, just know that they have come up short. Again.

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