MacIver News Service | September 5, 2017

By Bill Osmulski

The Joint Committee on Finance finally approved a transportation budget Tuesday night – and by doing so removed the biggest roadblock in passing the 2017-2019 Wisconsin State Budget.

The final product to come out of JFC closely resembles Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed transportation budget that he presented almost seven months ago. It also satisfies his requirement of not raising the gas tax or registration fee.

However, JFC’s version creates a $100 fee for electric vehicles and a $75 fee for hybrids. Walker recently said he was okay with such a fee because those vehicles use public roads but aren’t necessarily subject to the gas tax. This item is expected to raise $8.4 million over the biennium.

Walker originally proposed spending a total of $990 million in local transportation assistance and $2.5 billion for the State Highway Program. That included $1.7 billion for highway rehab, $670 million for the majors, and $122 for the megas.

JFC also puts about $2.5 billion toward the State Highway Program, but disperses it differently. It provides $1.6 billion for highway rehab, $563.7 million for the majors and $353.6 million for the megas. Local transportation assistance comes out to about $998 million.

One of the most contentious issues throughout the transportation debate was over bonding. Walker’s budget included $500 million in road bonds. The Assembly was generally opposed to any bonding, and argued for a pay-as-you-go approach to transportation funding. In the end, JFC approved $410 million in new bonds. That’s the lowest amount of new road bonding since the 2003-05 budget. $252 million of the $410 million was part of the Foxconn incentives package JFC approved earlier in the evening before taking up the DOT budget.

The new bonding in the Foxconn bill is specifically for the I-94 North South mega project. However, JFC decided to hit the brakes on two other mega projects for this biennium. It specifically prohibits funding for the north leg of the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange project and for the I-94 East West expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges.

JFC Co-Chair Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) reaffirmed his commitment to the pay-as-you-go philosophy by explaining to reporters, “This budget shows you’re not going to make a commitment that you can’t pay for, and that’s the bottom line. If we don’t have the resources to fund the east-west or the north leg of the Zoo, then we shouldn’t be making that commitment.”

There were also several items in the JFC transportation budget that look for savings within the DOT. It requires the agency to eliminate 200 positions over the biennium, saving $13 million annually. $4 million in land sales would be transferred to the transportation fund.

Property owners scored a win in the JFC’s budget. Local governments would no longer be allowed to condemn private property in order to build recreational trails, pedestrian ways, or bike paths.

JFC’s budget also explores new ways to save money on road projects. Walker’s proposal to eliminate prevailing wage in state building and highway projects made it into the final version.

JFC also approved a plan by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) that would investigate whether the state could save money on local projects by swapping Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds with federal funds from the state highway program. There’s also a plan to conduct a study on the possibility of tolling. Then there’s “Replace-In-Kind” alternatives for highway development plans that require the DOT to show what the project would cost without bike lanes, extra vehicle lanes, and by making other design changes. One item would prevent the City of Milwaukee from shifting expenses from its streetcar onto TIFs, the county, or the state.

Not everything in the JFC’s DOT budget will likely get the governor’s approval. The Legislature is trying to limit the governor’s influence on the Transportation Projects Commission (TPC). This commission is responsible for approving major and mega highway projects, so there’s a lot at stake. The JFC plan takes away one of the governor’s appointments and creates four new public positions appointed by the Legislature. The new transportation plan also creates three new staff positions to support the TPC, thereby expanding the bureaucracy’s role in the approval process.

The approval of a transportation budget by Joint Finance does not mean the transportation funding debate has been put to rest for good. Nygren told reporters, “We’re not going to come up with a long term solution for transportation, that’s disappointing. But you live to fight another day. You don’t get everything you want.”

This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.
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