Our Path Forward: Fix Our Transportation System!

By a combination of fiscal irresponsibility, donor cronyism, fact-free posturing, and hostility to community control, planning, and the environment, the Walker administration has sharply reduced the quality of Wisconsin’s transportation system and compromised its future. We should put road-builders on a strict diet, stop borrowing beyond our means, and commit the resources, planning, and local control needed to build and maintain a quality multi-modal system, with a low carbon footprint and easily accessible to all.  

What’s the Problem Addressed?
According the US Department of Transportation, Wisconsin’s roads now rate among the worst (48th) in the nation, with nearly 3/4ths in only poor to mediocre condition.[note] U.S. Department of Transportation (2018), Road and Bridge Data By State [/note] Non-state roads are in even worse shape, with 2/5ths in need of immediate repair.[note] 1000 Friends of Wisconsin (10 May 2015), Wisconsin’s Local Roads Crisis [/note] Together, our deficient roads costs motorists $6 billion annually ($12 billion biannually) – twice the size of the state’s transportation budget – in extra delay, operating costs, repairs, and accidents.[note] TRIP. (2016), Wisconsin Transportation by the Numbers: Meeting the State’s Need for Safe, Smooth and Efficient Mobility  Washington, D.C. Retrieved from [/note] That budget itself has become wildly unbalanced in its priorities and revenue sources in recent years. Even before the demand of Foxconn, new construction on big highway projects often exceeded the more vital if less flashy “fix-it-first” of road maintenance and repair; spending to help local governments was declining; and our trivial level of state transit funding had flatlined. But it’s worse than misplaced priorities. The transportation budget has also become financially unsustainable. With no increase in the gas tax for years, and motor vehicles becoming more efficient, less than half the costs of our roads and highways are not paid by its users. So Walker’s WIDOT has cannibalized General Purpose Revenue, grabbed money from local property taxes (where it competes with police and fire, schools, and other local needs) and taken on a huge amount of debt, the mere servicing of which now eats up a quarter of the state transportation budget.[note] Both figures drawn from 1000 Friends, op cit.[/note]

How OWR’s Proposal Addresses It
Doing a reset on transportation means putting highway construction on a diet, committing more money to “fix it first” and better transit options, and getting out of the way of regional solutions for regional commuting and municipal solutions for a healthier, economy-boosting, connected, multi-modal (cars, transit, active) approach to local mobility needs. We can easily pay for this much useful transportation system through better use of our limited federal funds and generating more revenue here through a combination of increased gas taxes, weight-based VMT (vehicle miles traveled) fees, and use of the many tools available to capture the increased property values and actual economic activity that such a system provides.[note] For many examples of such “value capture,” see Page, S., Bishop, B., & Wong, W. (2016), Guide to Value Capture Financing for Public Transportation Projects. Washington, D.C.: Transit Cooperative Research Program, Transportation Research Board.[/note] 

As we do this, of course, we need to pay attention to the diverse ways that advancing technology (smart and connected vehicles, platformed shared use, the near-term possibility of fully electrifying all transportation), changing demographics (“silver tsunami,” millennials, changing racial composition), and an altered physical environment (climate change, extreme weather events) may affect the supply and demand for mobility options. We should be prepared to do some strategic forecasting in this uncertain environment, and debate about options. Above all, we need to plan what we’re doing, see the close connection between mobility demands and land use, and get the many corporate predators out of the room and let people and communities decide on our goals.  

Who Else is Doing This?
With one of the very worst transportation systems in the country, Wisconsin’s got a lot of room for improvement. Many other states are doing precisely what we recommend. There are too many examples to summarize easily here. We suggest checking out the joint COWS-SGA State Smart Transportation Initiative for case studies, recorded webinars, compilations of good practice, and more.[note] Online at [/note]

Why Not Wisconsin? — Building a quality and financially sustainable transportation system isn’t rocket science. It’s a good deal more complicated, since it involves people and social power. But as examples in this country and around the world are now showing, it can be done. It just requires a little intelligence, humility, and cooperation – and the removal of our current state leadership which is against them all.