Transportation system of the future

The Department of Transportation now has the opportunity to study tolling as a path forward to fix our crumbling infrastructure

By DAVID FLADEBOE | June 27, 2019

After six months of hand-wringing on both sides of the aisle, the Wisconsin Legislature finally has passed a state budget. Gov. Tony Evers still must weigh in with his full or partial vetoes, but we have a potential framework for how the state will spend over $80 billion over the next two years. The debate has been heated over a variety of issues, but one provision — a mileage fee (and now tolling) study — got the most attention in the final days of debate.

When it comes to transportation funding in Wisconsin, there is one thing that all sides can agree on: The status quo isn’t sustainable.

Wisconsin has relied heavily on the gas tax to pay for our roads, but it’s a funding stream that isn’t keeping pace. Cars are becoming more fuel efficient, and electric technology is further reducing gasoline use. As we move away from gasoline to power our cars, we need to look at new ways of funding our transportation infrastructure.

More borrowing won’t solve the problem. Over 20% of all state transportation fund revenues — over half a billion dollars — already is spent on debt service rather than on improving roads.

The final amendment by the Legislature added tolling to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation study, which was a smart move. Forget your experience with toll booths where drivers need to stop, toss exact change into a basket and hope none of it falls to the ground. Advancing technologies mean that we can toll our roads without affecting traffic flow and without building massive tolling stations. A gas tax used to be preferable to tolling because a smaller portion of the tax went to pay for the act of collecting it. Today’s all-electronic tolling systems can cost as little to administer as a gas tax.

One word of caution to legislators and bureaucrats: A new revenue system alone won’t solve the problem. We also need to look for ways to reduce costs and gain efficiencies.

While a stable revenue stream is needed to address costs in the future, the DOT needs to implement reforms such as design-build (included in the Legislature’s budget), reduction of single-bid contracts and elimination of waste and fraud in the system. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee report included several recommendations for cutting costs. The Evers administration should take these ideas seriously.

Our interstate highways are wearing out, and many will need to be rebuilt over next three decades. Without a long-term solution, Wisconsin’s infrastructure will become an increasing drag on the state’s economic growth. Since implementing a new tolling system in Wisconsin will take years, even decades, it was imperative that the Legislature provide for a study that will move us closer to the funding system of the future. Now it is in the hands of the governor and the DOT to take this provision seriously and take steps to fix a broken system.

David Fladeboe is public affairs associate with the Badger Institute.