This article was written by Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, and was reprinted with permission of that organization. It originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget has more than enough pain to go around. Schools get hit with more than $800 million in cuts over the next two years. Recycling programs are not funded. Health care for seniors and the poor is slashed. Local road aids are cut. Some transit systems may not survive the proposed reductions. State revenue sharing is going down, putting more pressure at the local level to cover the costs of cuts to state aids – and without raising property taxes.
It’s called austerity.
Unless you happen to be a road builder.
Then this budget is called a bonanza.
While other programs are cut, highway expansion projects totaling more than $400 million get the green light. Highway expansion raids the general fund of more than $140 million, crushing any arguments that “highway users pay for the costs of roads.” In fact, the general fund and property taxes will pay about half of roadway costs in the future. So-called user fees are soon to be eclipsed by decidedly nonuser fees.
When you look at the increase in highway spending, it is also important to pay attention to where the money goes. Local road aids are cut, meaning that even though there is more money going for major highway expansion, there is less money for local units of government to fix those bone-jarring potholes that crop up every spring. Maintenance dollars for highways are down as well.
Walker has said that the highway expansion is needed for our economic recovery. The governor is putting a lot of faith – and capital – in having superhighways be the cornerstone of the state’s economic recovery. After all, he could have put the money in building better communities with better schools as a basis of economic development.
All of this seems bizarre when you consider that we are driving less than ever. We are in the fifth year of a steady decline in miles driven by each Wisconsin resident. The numbers of miles driven will likely decline even more as the cost of gas continues to climb above $4 a gallon. In fact, it is because we are driving less that the governor is proposing to raid the general fund for highways.
As people drive fewer miles with more fuel-efficient vehicles, they use less gas and the amount collected in gas taxes decreases. So in order to expand highways, non-transportation fund dollars need to be raised. This is why Walker is pushing transit aids out of the transportation fund and is raiding everything from general fund dollars to the environmental fund to pay for bigger roads.
But if people are driving less, why expand highways?
Transportation experts point out the truck traffic on highways is on the increase. If that’s the case, then fees on trucks should be assessed at a level consistent with the cost of building and maintaining the highways they need. Heavy trucks cause disproportionate damage to highways and bridges. School systems shouldn’t have to pay for the costs of building and maintaining the highways that trucks need. Up to a third of heavy truck traffic contributes nothing to the state’s economy as it simply passes through Wisconsin on the way from or to destinations out of state.
Highways are an important component of maintaining a healthy economy in Wisconsin. But so are communities where people live, work and play. The next generation of leaders will be able to choose where they live. They will certainly want to have good schools for their kids. They will want clean air and water. They will want good local roads to drive to and from work and many will want good transit options.
Walker’s budget fails to deliver on the most important part of our state’s economy and instead cuts essential services to fund a highway expansion scheme.