Over three dozen mayors across Wisconsin signed a “Statement of Support for Getting Wisconsin’s Transportation Priorities Straight.”
The statement mentions the growing trends of the state transportation budget for the past decades and the way more and more Wisconsinites are traveling. As bonding and state highway spending have dramatically increased, we are seeing the amount that people drive doing the opposite.
The recent Keep Wisconsin Moving report by the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission stated that when compared to 2007, Wisconsinites are driving 8.4 percent less. Also, by 2025, 27 percent of our population in 17 Wisconsin counties will be over 65. The statement concluded by asking legislators to make sure the budget evolves with Wisconsin’s evolving trends and to cut wasteful spending and redirect the funds to urgent local needs — local road maintenance and transit.
As a result, the Sierra Club, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WisPIRG) and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin have proposed an alternative called the 10% Solution.
The 10% Solution proposes shifting our transportation priorities by cutting highway spending by 10 percent (or $300 million) and using those funds to increase local road reimbursements by 10 percent (or $82 million) and restore the transit cut from the last budget of 10 percent ($21 million). The leftover $211 million could be used to drastically reduce the amount of bonding in the budget, of which almost $1 billion ($994 million) is proposed.
At first glance, 10 percent seems like a giant cut and your mind likely begins thinking about a critical project and if it would have to be cut. This does not have to be the case. In the current budget proposal, Governor Walker has required the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to look at enumerated transportation projects that have not begun construction. This could lead to monumental savings by cancelling unnecessary projects and or choosing lower-cost ways to do the projects.
For example, for every option for the construction of I-90/I-39, the most expensive one has been chosen; there could be more cost-effective options. Another example is Highway 15 in Outagamie County (which cost $125 million) in which the official internal statement states that without additional spending, the road and service would not decrease until 2040.
The other way to reduce costs without reducing safety or necessary projects is to remove the ‘gold-plating’. There may be instances when a double-decker on-ramp will suffice and a triple-decker one is unnecessary. Also, although it looks nice, the stamped concrete and fancy landscaping is expensive. Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) recently authored legislation that would save $15 million by ending “community-sensitive design,” or the murals, landscaping, stamped concrete and features like the proposed decorative lights for the Hoan Bridge that are added to projects to increase their aesthetic appeal.
While highways are being gold-plated, local communities are barely scraping by. Returning transportation dollars back to local communities is critical for repair and maintenance. Villages, towns, and cities struggle to fix pot holes, address crumbling roads and resurfacing needs, and create safe biking and walking access. The share of the Transportation Fund revenues for local roads has declined from 32 percent in 1998 to just 19 percent in 2012. Most people think that when they fill their car up with gas, the tax revenue is used to fix the roads they drive on. This isn’t always the case, especially as local roads we take to the store or work suffer. An $82 million provided by increasing reimbursements could mean over 3 million more potholes could be fixed.
Local roads are critical to support businesses, stir local economies, and increase safety and community vibrancy. Transit is also critical for local economies as it creates and connects people to jobs and the elderly and disabled to the places they need to go.
Our transit systems are relatively inexpensive compared to how much they provide to the community. According to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation study, every $1 spent on public transit provides a $3.44 economic return to the state, and a 2.5% increase in transit funding would yield $3.61 for every $1. Gov. Walker’s 2013 Transit Week Proclamation explains, “Public transportation provides access to job opportunities for millions of Americans as well as a transportation option to get to work, get to school, visit friends, or go to the doctor’s office.”
A 10% restoration of the previous budget’s transit cut would cost about $21 million. This is 3 tenths of 1% of the overall transportation budget. Although the effect on the overall budget is minor, the 10% cut devastated transit systems across Wisconsin. For example, Racine Transit has been forced to raise transit fares by 33% in 2012, in addition to a 7.1% cut in the amount of service provided. Restoring state funding will allow Racine Transit to achieve service reliability, and provide transit access to thousands of riders. An analysis of the transit service cuts by the University of Milwaukee found that since 2001, cutting transportation options has been responsible for the loss of 40,000 jobs in Wisconsin, and more than 13,000 jobs are expected to have been lost in 2012 due to further cuts.
Furthermore, the budget proposes moving transit out of the transportation fund. Putting transit into the general fund is nonsensical because it forces transit to compete with education and essential services like police and fire protection. Someone who takes public transit is choosing to take the bus instead of driving their car — taking transit competes with driving, not public education, and should be funded accordingly.
Our need for transit systems and local road maintenance throughout Wisconsin is much greater than our need for highway waste. The 10% Solution is a commonsense alternative to the current budget proposal that will lead to fewer potholes, less waste, and less debt.
Elizabeth Ward is the conservation programs coordinator for the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club in Wisconsin.