Betting on a shell game

If I were a betting man (actually I’m not), I would wager my bottom dollar that we will see a transfer of about $500 million from Wisconsin’s general fund into the transportation fund in the proposed state biennial budget some time next month. If it doesn’t actually happen, it will at least be proposed. Where am I getting this number and why am I predicting a budgetary shell game?

In the last month or so, a number of important documents have been released that “add up” to about a $500 million dollar annual hole to fill in the transportation funding political wish list.

The 10 citizen member Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy was created in the 2011-2013 biennial state budget and charged with the task of making recommendations issues related to the future of transportation finance in Wisconsin, with a particular eye to developing policy changes and financing options to balance projected transportation needs with revenues over the next 10 years. The Commission found:


  • The current transportation funding system will not keep up with maintenance costs or capacity improvements and we have been deferring maintenance for decades.
  • Over the next ten years, the funding gap varies between $2 billion and $18 billion, depending on whether we let our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate or if we maintain what we have and build increased capacity for growth.
  • The Commission’s preliminary recommendation is to increase the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon and raise vehicle registration and license fees to generate about $479 million a year.

While touring Colgan Air Services in La Crosse Thursday, Governor Scott Walker told reporters that he opposes increasing the gas tax and fees to solve fill the funding gap.

“If you look back at the money that was taken out of previous budgets for the transportation fund, there’s about, the last estimate from the state budget office, about $135 million,” Walker said. “That, if they were to over time between what we did last budget and what we do in the future, if we could pay that back, it’d be about $135 million, that would be a starting point there. There might be some other alternative, but I think in terms of a gas tax, that’s really a non starter.

The area of that triangle is the total deferred maintenance. Note that does not include the future costs of maintaining higher capacity (read wider) highways.

Gov. Walker is also on record as stating he does not want funding shortfalls to delay the Zoo Interchange reconstruction or other Mega Projects. “I’d be inclined to like to see that stay on schedule,” Walker said last November of work on the Zoo Interchange. “The question becomes, how can you do that, balancing out the resources that are available without delaying other projects around the state of Wisconsin?”

Apparently the Democrats agree according to Democrat Senator Jennifer Shilling. While traveling with Walker in La Crosse she said, “The commission has identified about a $6-8 billion deficit (editor’s note: actually $2 billion to $18 billion) in the next 10 years in the transportation fund,” Shilling said. “But, I don’t’ think right now there is an appetite in the legislature to go ahead with a gas tax.”

Given everybody wants to keep the mega projects on track without raising gas taxes, fees or borrowing more (also a non-starter with current leadership), and we have this huge shortfall, we are going to have to come up with an additional minimum of $600 to $800 million a year from somewhere else. If we assume the Dept. of Revenue’s growth projections are accurate, we will get an additional $1.5 billion from increases in tax revenue over the next two years plus the $342 million dollar surplus we ended the 2011-2012 biennium with. Together those round that up to $2 billion. I doubt it all would go to transportation though. Since the Governor already stated a $135 million transfer from the general fund to transportation is the starting point, and the Commission is recommending increase in the budget of $479 million, I’m gonna round up again and bet we see a $500 million dollar transfer from the general fund into our transportation budget.

Remember in my previous post on the budget I pointed out WisDOT as already suggested we shift around $12 million in federal funds for bikes to highway projects. Quote from the Departments Budget Request for the Transportation Alternatives Program (P. 185):

“The requested program consolidation would result in a net decrease in federal funding allocated for making local grants of $6,249,900 in 2013-14 and $6,152,400 in 2014-15.”

There is an additional $1.8 million reduction in Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Program funds, which are also a big source of money for bike and ped projects in the non-attainment areas like SE Wisconsin and Dane County.

I’m gonna get a bit more cynical now and bet your that we see state legislation proposed that would create a new state constitutional amendment making it illegal to shift money the other way, from the transportation to the general fund.

It is such a shame that nobody seems to be listening to the Commission’s main point, that we need to find a permanent fix to our transportation funding system. I would argue we also need to change our priorities from moving vehicles to moving people in the most efficient and cost effective manner. That alone could save us billions over the next ten years.

Why is all this relative to bicycles? I think it serves to remind us that to the lay person, this fiscal shell game seems crazy and the amount of money we are talking about for bicycles is a drop in the bucket. The transfer of funds from the general fund also speaks to that old argument that people who ride bicycles don’t pay for roads because we are not burning gas when we ride. I’ve debunked that myth a few times in previous posts, but this transfer of general funds further makes the point that cars don’t pay for what they use either, and even if you don’t drive a car, you still pay for highways.

Rest assured that even with all this money being hypothetically thrown around, the Bike Fed will be fighting behind the scenes to at least restore the $12-$14 million proposed shift in federal bike/ped funds to highways. As I recently reported, bicycles get such a slim piece of the transportation funding pie, but have such a big economic impact on Wisconsin, the budget should leave us whole if not give us a small increase. There are people from both parties in Madison who understand this. They are not in the majority of either party, but they are in the Capitol, and we will work with them to try to ensure our drop stays in the bucket.

Anybody want to make book on my bets?



About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

4 thoughts on “Betting on a shell game

  1. In the past the Bike Fed had something like an email drive directed towards our representatives. Would there be a possibility of a united voice again?
    I do understand how everyone benefits from hwys because of the movement of goods. I’d love to see user fees such as tolls on the hwys around here on single ocupency vehicles and give those conducting commerce a break.

    • Hey Casey Tweed,

      I think we need to play wait and see on the budget right now. Given that the Governor and key Dems seems to be rejecting the idea higher gas taxes, fees or tolls even though their very own appointed board and Director of Transportation are recommending them, I don’t think there is a snowballs chance in a BBQ that we are going to see a shift towards a transportation system in which users actually pay for what they use. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

      I will talk to our Executive Director, Legislative Policy person and our lobbyists to see what they think about an email campaign.

      Stay tuned…

  2. Hopefully, this legislature will repay what was shifted out of the Transportation Fund to the General Fund under Gov. Doyle’s administration. There are trails that have been allowed to slide because of deferred maintenance. This has also impeded connecting trails between neighboring counties.

    • Barry, perhaps you missed the point of the blog post, but I’m guessing there will be a whopping $500 million pulled from the general fund and put into the transportation fund. That makes Doyle’s transfer the other way seem cheap. And since general taxes already subsidize so much of our car-centric transportation system, any more subsidies for highways feels like road salt in an open wound to me. So much for users pay, users benefit.

      And if that general fund transfer happens, there has been no indication at this point that a single dollar of it will go for trails. You should call or email your elected officials and tell them you ride a bike and want your tax dollars spent to repair our trails.

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