State needs to start thinking creatively about road funding

There are three ways to deal with the roads budget challenge facing state legislators: cut projects, borrow more money to pay for those projects, raise more revenue. Legislators are talking about the first two, and they should be, but they and the governor are ignoring the third, which is a mistake.

Unless new sources of sustainable revenue are found to pay for maintenance and building, commerce could well choke on the potholes, crumbling pavement and weakened bridges that will become the hallmark of Wisconsin roadways. As we’ve noted in previous editorials, the state should cut back on some projects, consider raising the gas tax and registration fees in the short-term and consider some method of charging for vehicle miles traveled or toll roads (which would require federal approval) in the long term.

The first priority should be to maintain current roadways and build more and better transportation options, such as transit and bike pathways. Build new projects and widen highways where necessary, but vet all those projects carefully, and make sure they are necessary.

And some will be. In a recent meeting with the Editorial Board, representatives of road builders and local governments argued that the number of vehicles on the nation’s roads is starting to rebound from the dip caused by the Great Recession. They also stressed that the state’s roads are inadequate to meet current demand, let alone a rise in that demand.

Current revenue sources — the gas tax and registration fees — can’t handle the load: More fuel-efficient vehicles use less gas and pay less in gasoline taxes, which have not been raised in years. This is a problem across the country. The federal government and other states are wrestling with it, as well. Nebraska legislators voted last month to override their governor’s veto and raise the gas tax; Utah approved a gas tax hike in March; Iowa approved one in February. Other states are raising registration fees and placing fees on electric and hybrid vehicles.

The thinking in Wisconsin hasn’t been as creative. Gov. Scott Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion for transportation spending. Republican lawmakers balked at that, and rightly so. Although other state borrowing would be lowered under the governor’s budget, that’s still too much borrowing to put on the backs of future generations.

So now legislators are talking about cutting $500 million in road spending, which would result in significant delays in projects, the Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday. The Zoo Interchange rebuild would stay on schedule, but other areas of Wisconsin would face more immediate effects, and southeastern Wisconsin would increasingly feel them, as well, if the cuts were left in place after 2017. The miles of state roads rated “poor and below” would more than double over the next 10 years, the Journal Sentinel reported.

That means there would be less money for maintaining rural roads used by trucks in agriculture, logging, mining and other industries. And those crumbling streets in urban areas could continue to deteriorate.

Something more is needed, especially for the long term. The state needs to find a better way to make sure its roads adequately serve families and businesses. It’s time to start thinking creatively about the right mix of transportation and the right mix of funding.

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