A message from Debby Jackson, TDA Executive Director
Wisconsin’s transportation system directly impacts everybody – from parents dodging potholes on the way to drop off their kids at soccer practice to businesses trying to get their products to market. This is why the Transportation Development Association has promoted the vitality and safety of the state’s transportation system — including public transit systems, airports, railroads, commercial ports, and roads — for almost 50 years.
Transportation and the Economy
Maintaining and modernizing our transportation infrastructure costs money. And with projects sometimes taking decades from conception to completion, transportation investment requires a long planning horizon and the balancing of today’s priorities with the mobility needs of tomorrow. This requisite long-term vision is hard to reconcile with a state budgetary system that marks time in two-year increments.
But this is something Wisconsin needs to tackle as the price of poor infrastructure and the acceptance of the status quo is too high. Aging infrastructure is a drag on the economy – a hidden tax – that is not as easily quantifiable as the cost of needed improvements.
Infrastructure obstacles not only increase operating costs; they also restrict potential growth. In a 2019 editorial, Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, summarized the impact of deficient infrastructure on small business owners this way, “If we do nothing, we’ll lose trillions of dollars without ever breaking ground. But those dollars, those missed opportunities and those lost jobs never make it into a government end-of-year report, or a business balance sheet, or a Small Business Index. They are truly lost: things that could have been if our infrastructure had only been up to snuff.”
Wisconsin’s Transportation Challenges
Every state in the nation is grappling with how to adequately and sustainably fund transportation. For most, the “fix” is not a one-time deal but an ongoing process to address the transportation funding gap.
Wisconsin’s transportation funding challenges are well documented and stem from three leading causes:
- Fixed, flat-rate user fees
- Aging, deficient transportation
- Rising debt service
Wisconsin’s transportation user fees – primarily the gas tax and vehicle registration fee – don’t naturally generate more revenue as the economy grows. Therefore, the purchasing power of these fees declines over time. In the absence of addressing the first two issues, Wisconsin over-relied on bonding. Real spending (inflation-adjusted) on many categories other than debt service and highway operations (maintenance and traffic operations, not pavement or facility improvement) stagnated or declined in recent years.
The Department of Transportation has expanded its Lean Government program to save or avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars of costs per year; and has, for the first time in years, begun to conduct risk-based internal audits and program reviews to improve efficiency and compliance. While it is vital to find efficiencies, such belt-tightening alone will not be enough to meet Wisconsin’s transportation challenges.
2019-21 Budget: An Essential First Step
The 2019-2021 state budget finally acknowledged the growing concerns of citizens and businesses with an increase of more than $200 million a year in new, ongoing revenue.
With the increased investment, Wisconsin now can:
- Move up more than 200 vital state highway rehabilitation projects around the state
- Increase support for local roads and transit services
- Complete the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee and invest in other necessary modernization and safety projects, including Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan and I-39/90 from the state line to Madison
- Reduce bonding to the lowest level in 20 years
This bipartisan agreement was a step in the right direction.
However, while this budget slows the system decline, it doesn’t solve the problem. Without the ability to build on these investments, the slowdown in deteriorating system conditions will only be temporary, and any progress may be short-lived.
It’s About TIME Wisconsin
TDA knows Transportation Investment Moves Everything. From dairy products and cranberries to motorcycles and mining equipment, Wisconsin companies produce some of the best, most desired products in the world. Getting these goods to the marketplace requires sound transportation infrastructure.
Wisconsin also has a thriving tourism industry that depends on visitors being able to move easily and safely to bountiful festivals, lakes, cabins, and campgrounds across the state. And whether a commuter drives to work over local roads, state highways, and the interstate or takes the bus, every sector of our economy is hampered when commute times increase.
2020 is an election year, and candidates for state elected office will be making the rounds at community events. When you see them, make sure to ask where they stand on sustainable, long-term transportation funding. Then, please share their responses with us.
And let me know your thoughts about this inaugural issue.
It’s about TIME, Wisconsin. TIME for the next step, a long-term solution.