Transportation proposal for Wisconsin needs thorough vetting

1000 Friends is referenced in this post:

taken from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel opinion page.

Wisconsin’s method of paying for transportation has to change. That’s a fact upon which all parties to the debate coming early next year can agree. And we believe that Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb has proposed a sound starting point for a discussion on funding the state’s transportation needs — one that this time doesn’t appear to be dead on arrival with Republican legislators. His last proposal was shot down almost immediately.

If you drive a hybrid or electric car, you’ll have to shell out $50 a year more. Image Credit:

Gov. Scott Walker’s transportation secretary revealed his plan last week; it calls for increasing taxes and fees by $750 million.

And while we think there is much to like in this proposal, there also needs to be a giant yellow caution light blinking over it. Gottlieb proposes a massive increase in taxes and fees — including a special fee on hybrid vehicles. We’re skeptical that all those taxes and fees are necessary. We wonder whether the plan takes into account the needs of an aging Wisconsin. Do we need as many roads in the future? And does it include a solid plan for boosting transit services?

The proposal comes as lawmakers say they want to find new money to pay for roads but are reluctant to increase taxes. Walker has said he wants to lower taxes, in fact, which makes us wonder how supportive he’ll be.

Gottlieb’s plan includes increasing the gas tax by restructuring how it is figured and by imposing a fee on new vehicle purchases and the additional charge for hybrid and electric vehicles. It would transfer money from Wisconsin’s main account to pay for highways. The fee on new vehicle purchases would add $800 to the cost of a $32,000 car.

Gottlieb would change how the gas tax is calculated and install a floor beneath it. The rate would be 15.5 cents a gallon plus 8% of the average wholesale price of fuel. The gas tax, now 32.9 cents a gallon, would go up by about 5 cents a gallon, the secretary estimates. That would cost the average driver about $27 a year, not too high a cost to pay, and it adjusts the tax to reflect today’s reality. Charging more for diesel makes sense, too, as trucks wear out roads faster than do passenger vehicles.

Vehicle registration fees would remain $75 a year, but if you drive a hybrid or electric car, you’ll have to shell out $50 a year more. The theory here is to ensure that those drivers, who buy less gasoline, also pay their share of road construction and maintenance. Yes, drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles need to help pay for the roads, but even $50 a year might be a disincentive to buying such vehicles. A system that assessed vehicles based on miles traveled seems like a fairer way to go.

Gottlieb also wants to transfer $573.6 million in income and sales tax receipts to shore up the state’s transportation fund, which also raises concerns because it would come out of the hide of state services that tap that main account, including schools and health care programs. Some of those programs already are stretched thin. Roads and road maintenance have to be funded, but those who use the roads should do the paying.

Legislators also should make sure there is a proper balance between new roads and lanes, maintenance of current roads and transit. Transit, as we’ve said many times, is not a social service but an economic development tool that can be used to attract young workers and jobs.

And we hope there is a broad discussion such as that suggested by 1000 Friends and WISPIRG. The state needs to make sure that it sets the right priorities and has the right projections for the future. If young and old alike are less interested in driving — and there’s some evidence of that — the state needs to adjust its priorities and find a balance that meets future real needs. Are the Department of Transportation’s projections reasonable given the actual trends that WISPIRG has noted? That’s a question the state needs to have in a nonpartisan fashion.

Gottlieb’s proposal comes after voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution that bars raids on the state transportation fund to pay for general state operations. While a constitutional amendment was an extreme step to take, it was the right call since segregated funds should remain just that: segregated.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, called the plan a “thoughtful, comprehensive proposal that doesn’t kick the can down the road.”

Generally speaking, we think Thompson is right. Certainly, it’s a good starting point for a comprehensive discussion.

Read the full article and see the commentary.