No Easy Fix for Roads in Sight

There is widespread agreement among Republicans and Democrats that the nation’s infrastructure – particularly its roads and bridges – needs a boost. What they can’t agree on is how to pay for it.

The need for improvement is especially true in Wisconsin where a recent study found our roads ranked 38th (12th worst in the nation) and deteriorating rapidly (we dropped ten spots from the previous ranking).

Now President Donald Trump has introduced what he claims to be a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. But a closer look reveals that there’s only $200 billion in actual federal outlays. The rest is predicated on the idea that private companies (presumably businesses that will build private toll roads) and state and local governments will kick in $7.50 for every dollar the feds spend. And, even at that, the president would spread that investment over ten years, so rapid change it is not.

Wisconsin roads ranked 12th worst in the nation and dropped ten positions from last year.

But because Trump’s plan includes $100 billion over a decade to match state and local investments, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was prompted to suggest that he might consider tolling Wisconsin’s interstate system in order to produce revenue that would attract some of those new federal dollars.

Bike Fed board member and Walker’s former state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb penned an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which he criticized the governor’s proposal as being inefficient and likely to cause vehicles, especially trucks, to find alternative free routes on state highways and local roads, increasing traffic and maintenance costs there. Gottlieb referred to a state DOT study from last year that suggested that 23 cents of every dollar collected through tolls would go to building and administering the tolling system. That same study predicted that about 30% of vehicles would be diverted off the Interstates to state and local roads.

Capitol insiders we talk with see no chance that the tolling proposal or any other new funding source for transportation will be approved before the legislature adjourns next month. And chances for the Trump plan at the federal level don’t seem much better.

The Bike Fed has been supportive of new resources for transportation because cyclists experience bad roads sooner and more acutely than drivers. So, we were happy that the legislature approved an eight percent increase in funding for local road repair in the last state budget. But to maintain that over time will take new state or federal resources and probably both.

For all the noise you may have heard in the last couple weeks about infrastructure investments, don’t look for that issue to be resolved any time soon.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

3 thoughts on “No Easy Fix for Roads in Sight

  1. Well, here’s an idea, instead of sending “refund” checks to “all tax payers” because there’s so much so call “surplus”, or having a sales tax “holiday”, why not use all THAT “extra” money for federal road match? I don’t get it.

  2. Greatest challenges to a gas tax increase are (1) that they hit people least likely to be able afford them, those who because of life situations and economic challenges are least likely to be able to afford them and (2) they are counterintuitive to the more expensive electric cars, buyers of which would be exempt from the increased gas tax but could still use an infrastructure funded primarily by carbon-fueled cars and trucks. That’s tax the poor to subsidize the rich.

  3. I am totally for it, fix the roads and fix them for good. Do not outsource them to corporates but to local companies and put their name on it, because the corporates do not have to be on the roads but the local guys do. I think the 8% increase in funding is low but something is better than nothing.

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