One of our resolutions for 2017 is to have some impact on the big debate coming over the state transportation budget.
Part of that effort will be to keep you informed on all the twists and turns in the road and there sure have been some in the last week. Let’s get caught up.
Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb resigned effective in early January. Little explanation was given except for the usual thing you hear when no explanation is intended: he wants to spend more time with his family.
Look, I’m sure, Mark Gottlieb is a good family man and that his wife and kids will be delighted to have him around the house, but I’m also pretty sure he didn’t leave his job so that he could finally get around to cleaning the garage and organizing his workbench.
It’s a fair bet that Gottlieb quit or was forced out because of his frustration with his boss, Gov. Scott Walker. A few years ago Gottlieb chaired a blue ribbon commission that looked at state transportation finances. I served on that commission, but that was before I worked for the Bike Fed. I got to know Gottlieb, a civil engineer and former mayor of Port Washington, as a no nonsense, honest, straight-shooting civil servant. And I also know him to get on a bicycle once in awhile.
The commission’s conclusion was that, in order to maintain roads and complete some major highway expansions, mostly in southeast Wisconsin, the state was going to need to increase transportation taxes by something in the neighborhood of a half billion to a billion dollars a year. That sounds like a bunch, but Wisconsin has the lowest transportation taxes in the region and the proposed increases would bring our taxes to the middle range.
My personal view – and again I wasn’t representing the Bike Fed at the time – was that the planned major highway expansions were too aggressive and that money could be saved there but that tax increases would still be needed in the lower part of that range just to properly repair and maintain existing roads. I also was able to secure a recommendation for another $10 million in funding for bicycle infrastructure. So, even with my reservations about major highway expansions, I joined the rest of the commission in a unanimous vote of support for its final report.
Anyway, because Gottlieb believed in the plan that his commission came up with, he proposed a budget in 2015 that reflected some of the commission’s recommendations including several hundred million dollars in tax increases. But the governor and many legislators pronounced his proposal dead on arrival within hours of its release. Gottlieb had to feel undercut by his own administration and, frankly, I was surprised he didn’t leave then.
Now two years later, under orders from the governor, Gottlieb proposed a budget with no tax increases. But this time he was called before the Assembly Transportation Committee. At a hearing on December 6th, Gottlieb spoke for three hours. Under questioning he had to admit that his budget would result in a doubling of the miles of substandard state roads over the next decade and that completion of some of those major highway expansions would be put off indefinitely.
I was at that hearing and I noticed that while Gottlieb answered the questions in his usual businesslike, even laconic, fashion, I thought I noted just a tinge of delight at essentially being asked to confirm exactly what he said two years earlier. Three weeks later during the lull between the holidays – probably no accident – Gottlieb and the governor announced that he was leaving to paint that guest bedroom.
He was quickly replaced with Dave Ross, the former mayor of Superior. We don’t know much about Ross, but having been a mayor is good experience for the job. It means that he might have some concern for the condition of local streets – where most cycling miles are racked up. And, since I know a lot of mayors, I can testify that the job tends to make even an ideologue into a practically minded human being.
We’ll see how Ross turns out, but in Mark Gottlieb, we knew we had a reasonable and decent man to work with. He performed his job as a real public servant. He was no two bit political hack. We wish him well with getting that garage in shape or in any future endeavor he wants to pursue.