Scott Walker asks Senate Republicans for more road borrowing
Traffic along Madison’s Beltline, Highway 12-18, backs up (right lane) at the Verona Road interchange. It is among five major highway projects that the Department of Transportation announced would be delayed. Work would continue but at a slower pace.
Madison— Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday urged Senate Republicans to approve additional borrowing to help put back on track at least some of the five major highway projects that are facing delays.
Walker’s administration announced last week it was delaying the five projects and disclosed Monday it would be pushing back work on other, smaller ones. The Department of Transportation has not yet revealed which additional projects would be delayed.
Walker and a panel of lawmakers have the ability to issue an additional $350 million in debt for roadwork. Of that, $200 million could be issued now and $150 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“We think there are ways that we can squeeze out some savings and find some ways to work with you on that, but I would be hopeful that at some point in the future at least some portion of that could be freed up,” the GOP governor told Republican senators.
Walker did not take questions from reporters afterward. It’s unclear how much the additional borrowing would mitigate the delays.
Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), said after the meeting it would be a “tough sell” to persuade Senate Republicans to approve more bonds for road projects, particularly if they would have to be paid back from the state’s main account instead of the transportation fund.
The department announced last week it was delaying work on I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison; Highway 151/Verona Road in Madison; Highway 10/441 in the Fox Valley; Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth; and Highway 15 near New London in Outagamie County.
Work on the projects in many cases is underway. The work will continue, but at a slower pace that will delay completion for two years, unless additional bonding is approved.
Delaying four of those major projects would cost drivers $160 million or more in inflation over two years, according to a projection released Monday by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. The study was paid for by the trade group.
The department will release its own estimate on the cost of delays in February.
Walker wanted to borrow a record $1.3 billion over two years for transportation, but his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature said that was too much. In a compromise, they agreed to borrow $500 million initially as part of the state budget they adopted in July.
The department was given the ability to ask for an extra $350 million, which would be released with the approval of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The department has yet to ask for the additional sum.
Senate Republicans have expressed reluctance to issue the additional funding, in part because much of it would be paid back from the state’s general fund, which is made up primarily of income and sales tax receipts and pays for school funding, health care for the poor and an array of programs. Usually, borrowing for highways is covered by the transportation fund, which is made up mostly of collections from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
Republicans in the Assembly and Democrats from both houses have called for issuing the additional bonds.
“Kicking the can down the road is ineffective and expensive,” said Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville).
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) said Democrats in her house support finding more money for roads and were willing to discuss raising gas taxes or raising vehicle registration fees, but did not endorse any specific idea.
“Those things are all on the table,” she said. “We need to have a two-way conversation with the majority party to make any of this real.”
Also Tuesday, Rep. Robb Kahl (D-Monona) announced he would introduce legislation to allow for annual, automatic inflationary increases in the gas tax. Under Kahl’s plan, the Joint Finance Committee would have the power to halt the increases.
For decades, inflationary hikes to the gas tax went into effect every year. Legislators from both parties approved ending the practice in 2005, saying there should be votes for any increases. Since then, they haven’t approved any increases to the tax.
While the DOT has said the delays will be for two years, they may end up being longer. The DOT’s projection assumes lawmakers will inject new revenue into the transportation system in the years ahead. But legislators for years have struggled with finding ways to put more money toward roads, with Walker and some Republicans who control the Legislature ruling out raising gas taxes or registration fees.
The delays on the five projects will likely have a cascading effect that will push off work on future projects, but the department hasn’t said what those could be.