SO, APPARENTLY, WISCONSIN Secretary of Transportation Mark Gottlieb — normally a reliable pragmatist — has decided it’s time to just throw in the towel.
In the previous two transportation budget cycles Gottlieb brought forth ideas about how to raise the revenues needed to at least try to catch up and keep up with the state’s highway needs. It was a thoughtful process that parsed all the options and recommended modest adjustments that, taken together, would bring in significant revenues.
Both times Gottlieb’s boss, Gov. Scott Walker, tossed the work into the round file immediately and adamantly refused to consider anything that resembled a tax or fee increase. Instead, Walker proposed massive borrowing that increased costs to Wisconsin in the long run while preserving his no-tax pledge as he geared up to run for president.
THIS TIME AROUND there was some level of optimism the next Wisconsin budget finally might address the state’s crumbling highways and infrastructure in a meaningful way, including a sustainable funding mix. After losing his presidential bid, perhaps the governor might be more flexible in forging a long-term strategy.
Instead, Gottlieb said last week he will be submitting a no-revenue increase proposal for the next transportation budget cycle. He was quite open about its impact. There will only be enough money to focus on existing projects and try to keep the most traveled highways and bridges from crumbling. Priority projects — like the widening of Interstate 39-90 from Beloit to Madison — will be delayed. Again. Some 90 percent of the state’s highways basically will be ignored. Bad roads all over Wisconsin will get worse — for some, even, dangerous.
Meanwhile, Walker said the only way he’ll consider any funding alternatives is if offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget keep transportation revenue-neutral. Not likely. The needs are too large and the wallet is too empty.
IT WAS A BAD IDEA when the state kicked the can down the road four years ago. It was still a bad idea when officials did the same thing two years ago. It is irresponsible to plan on doing it again.
Everybody with any knowledge of transportation issues knows Wisconsin does not have a sustainable system for collecting sufficient revenue to maintain the roads and bridges it already has, let alone to embark on any major new projects. So people bounce along on rough highways. When vehicles arrive from the south at the Wisconsin state line from Illinois they flow off a smooth three-lane stretch into a bottleneck of two lanes, then endure a jarring bumper-to-bumper ride to northern and western destinations. To be embarrassed by Illinois’ superior quality — a state flat broke — ought to aggravate everyone in Wisconsin.
This continued inaction poorly serves the state and will adversely effect both economic development and tourism if not corrected.
A cynic might suspect not much has changed since the last two budget cycles. The governor has been infected with Potomac fever. After losing to Donald Trump he’s got something to prove, and he’s hoping for another opportunity next time around.
LET’S HOPE THERE are elected officials in the legislature with their eye on the ball in Wisconsin, not Washington. Even Republican allies of the governor have crumbling highways and bridges running through their districts. Idly letting it all deteriorate further should be a non-starter.
But, clearly, legislators are going to have to do the leading on this issue. We even believe it could become that rarest of birds in Madison, a bipartisan effort. Highways and infrastructure are not Republican or Democrat priorities, they should be Wisconsin priorities. Cooperation in crafting and passing a sustainable plan to adequately fund the state’s needs is in order.
Remember back: There was a time when out-of-staters went home praising the nice smooth roads that carried them to their tourist destinations everywhere around Wisconsin. Haven’t heard that lately, have you?
From a practical standpoint, this is a job that will have to get done at some point. The longer it’s sacrificed to either political ambition or hidebound ideology, the more the eventual fix will cost. The legislature should make this happen, whether the governor wants to go along or not.