To ensure road policy prioritizes roads’ users, replace Wisconsin’s fading gas tax
The other morning, drumming my fingers on the wheel while westbound traffic oozed along I-94 from downtown Milwaukee toward the stadium — the Wisconsin Department of Transportation says this now is usual — I pondered how much of the argument over I-94’s rebuild isn’t about making the freeway more useful for the people who paid for it.
Instead, oddly, a bunch of critics seem determined to make the I-94 user experience worse on the grounds it’ll make users give up.
Not the DOT: It proposed that as the worn-out 1961 freeway is rebuilt, it be widened by one lane from downtown through Wood National Cemetery. If we don’t, the DOT calculates, congestion in both directions in morning and evening peaks will get worse, going from severe today to extreme in 2050.
In recommending another lane, the agency is paying attention to the evident need of people in Wisconsin to travel from one side of metro Milwaukee to another.
By contrast, opponents who want the road kept narrow, a hodgepodge of anti-growth greens, anti-suburb activists and social justice attention-seekers, do not much argue with the DOT’s numbers. Instead, they offer distractions:
- Expansion is merely a convenience for suburbanites commuting to downtown jobs, they claim. Though, as one DOT official put it in 2021, much of I-94’s traffic is Milwaukeeans going to and from neither downtown nor Waukesha County. “It’s not just Joe Suburbanite using this road,” said the official, but people starting and ending in-between.
- Drivers should instead abandon cars, say opponents. Just take the (not yet open) bus rapid transit from Wauwatosa to downtown, said the “Fix at Six” plan for a “sustainable alternative” to an adequate freeway. Or take the not-yet- planned commuter rail, which the report incredibly claimed would be “much more flexible than highways.” Sure, it’s not flexible enough if neither your job nor home are near the rail line, but the report also suggested a wholesale reordering of society so people, pushed into different jobs and homes, can “get to the places they need to go within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.”
- Expanding I-94 “continues a racist legacy,” the ACLU of Wisconsin said, because a different freeway once was built through Milwaukee’s historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. Which was nowhere near I-94, but perhaps this made sense to the ACLU somehow.
All these excuses amount to studiously ignoring what the people of metro Milwaukee are saying with their driving: I-94 is the state’s busiest stretch of road because it is so flexibly useful — getting you from the north side to New Berlin or from Butler to the Menomonee Valley, wherever and whenever you need.
Instead, road opponents put other priorities — promoting transit, discouraging suburbia, avenging Bronzeville — first. They turn highway policy into a weapon of other revolutions.
This is why an old principle of highway finance in America — the principle of user-pays/user-benefits — is so important. The arguments against making I-94 more useful rest on the premise that the project’s budget is simply state money that can be repurposed to serve preferred aims — to subsidize transit fares or to “promote racial equity,” as Fix at Six touted.
“But it’s our gas-tax money,” jammed-up drivers might say, and for now, they’d mostly be right. But only mostly: In recent years, Wisconsin has been transferring money from the general fund into the transportation fund. And for many years, every projection has shown that gas tax revenue likely has peaked and henceforth will decline as cars get better mileage and as more electric vehicles hit the road.
Last summer, legendary transportation expert Robert W. Poole Jr. of the Reason Foundation estimated for the Badger Institute that by 2050, Wisconsin’s fuel tax revenue will have suffered a long, slow slide even before adjusting for inflation. That was his mid-range estimate. At worst, we could be down 44% from business as usual. That means a lot of money for roads would have to come from general taxation, severing the user-pays/user-benefits principle.
That’s bad. “It’s vitally important to retain the users-pay/users-benefit principle,” he tells me. “In Europe, fuel taxes go into the general fund, and highways are seriously underfunded. So as we select a replacement for the fading gas tax, the new user fee must be dedicated to highways.”
Poole and Badger Institute visiting fellow Benita Cotton-Orr laid out how to replace the gas tax in “Future-Proofing Wisconsin’s Highway Funding System,” part of our “Mandate for Madison.” You can read it here.
It’s a clear plan for how a mileage-based user fee can replace — not supplement, but replace — the gas tax. Wisconsin can phase in such a shift, piloting it on the planned rebuilds of aging freeways and interstate highways, using no-stop transponder technology, and adding in surface highways as best practices become clear from our experience and that of other states.
As Poole and Cotton-Orr make clear, any transition should offer options to drivers to ensure their privacy and to be fair both to urban and rural users. Above all, Wisconsin should make transparent to all what their fees are funding. Drivers are paying; drivers should benefit — and should be able to evaluate whether we’re getting good value.
Such a restoration of the user-pays/user-benefits principle wouldn’t end freeway fights. People who move into well-off neighborhoods next to freeways that were built before they were born will still feel entitled to despise the passing drivers. Greens will still loathe everyone else’s automobility.
But disentangling road funding from the sharp-elbows stewpot of general state taxation will give Wisconsinites more power to demand that roads be kept useful for those who use them.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.