Is Wisconsin spending too much on unnecessary highway projects? One group says "yes"

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Is Wisconsin spending too much on unnecessary highway projects? A state environmental group and two lawmakers say "yes."

Wisconsin is about to spend up to $3 billion on four projects, including the expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee.

The "WISPIRG Foundation" recommends state lawmakers spend less on the highways and see that money diverted to local road repairs and other alternative modes of transportation.

"We don't need new taxes and we don't need new fees to fund our transportation infrastructure," Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman said Tuesday, September 9th.

The study says vehicle travel peaked in Wisconsin in 2004. It finds commuting by bicycle has risen in Milwaukee -- and transit ridership is up in places like Madison and LaCrosse.

Alderman Bauman has issued the following statement to FOX6 News:

As the Milwaukee Common Council prepares to take on its annual budget process for the year ahead, Alderman Robert Bauman has drafted a resolution urging state legislators to allocate a greater share of transportation funding to local projects.

“The State of Wisconsin’s transportation spending priorities are completely out of balance,” Alderman Bauman said. “Even as municipalities statewide make the case for funding more local transit projects and road repair, the State of Wisconsin has increased allocations for major highway projects—even unwanted highway expansions.”

Alderman Bauman said he has introduced a resolution that urges the state legislature to allocate a greater share of the Transportation Fund to local transportation projects. Currently, he said local roads receive only 30 percent of transportation funding, even though they make up around 90 percent of the state’s lane-miles.

“The state should give a boost to local road repair and public transit, but there’s no need to raise gas taxes or registration fees,” Alderman Bauman said. “They already collect plenty of money; they just need to prioritize their spending more wisely.”

The WISPIRG Foundation has issued this statement:

A new WISPIRG Foundation report offers a simple, common-sense way to reform transportation spending in Wisconsin.  The state is currently slated to spend nearly $3 billion on four unneeded highway expansion projects, such as the double decker expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee.  Meanwhile, local transportation infrastructure is in disrepair.  We could implement all the recommendations of the 2013 bi-partisan Transportation Policy and Finance Commission for local road repair, transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and the rehabilitation of state-owned roads, for the next 10 years, for just over $1 billion of those highway expansion funds.  

The report, Fork in the Road: Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities?, makes clear the choice before state leaders – either spend taxpayer dollars on these highly questionable highway expansion projects, or invest in urgent and underfunded local and state-owned road repair and other 21st century priorities.  

“Unneeded highway expansion will divert billions of dollars away from the repair of existing local roads and other critical local transportation infrastructure all over Wisconsin,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation Director.  “It’s time for state leaders to make responsible transportation decisions. Sure, politicians like ribbon cuttings, but rather than squander tax dollars on overbuilding highways, let’s prioritize the repair and maintenance of our existing infrastructure and the transit and bike improvements that we need to compete in the 21st century.” 

Statewide, local roads are in disrepair and transit systems struggle to meet local needs.  Even for highways, road maintenance is underfunded, and its funding has grown more slowly, compared to new highway construction.  In some years, such as 2006 and 2011, Wisconsin spent more on new construction than on highway repairs.  The American Society of Civil Engineers rates 71 percent of Wisconsin’s roads as “mediocre” or “poor” quality.  Additionally, 1,157 bridges in Wisconsin—approximately 8 percent of the total—are “structurally deficient.” 

While property tax dollars contribute to local transportation, including the repair of potholes and transit, state assistance is essential to meet local needs.  State-imposed property tax levy limits prevent local governments from fully meeting these local needs.  Without state support, Wisconsin communities are stuck in a transportation funding bind.  The report highlights some of the specific maintenance needs, transit plans, and bicycle and pedestrian projects funding could support, including the rehabilitation of four of Milwaukee’s iconic moving bridges, and the ben­efits they would deliver for communities across Wisconsin.  

Meanwhile, the state is about to spend up to $2.8 billion on four particularly wasteful highway expansion projects:

    Wisconsin’s lavish spending on new highway capacity seems particularly short-sighted in light of recent changes in transportation behavior. Wisconsinites are driving less and relying more on non-driving modes of transportation such as walking, biking and transit. The average Wisconsinite today drives no more than he or she did in 1998 and overall vehicle miles travelled in 2013—the most re­cent year for which data are available from WISDOT—were down approximately 1.5 percent from the peak level of eight years prior. 

    A May 2014 WISPIRG Foundation survey, Driving Wisconsin’s ‘Brain Drain’: How Outdated Transportation Policies Undermine Wisconsin’s Ability to Attract and Retain Young Talent for Tomorrow’s Economic Prosperity, revealed that most Wisconsin college students want the ability to get around without a car, and many may leave Wisconsin without that option. 

    “Our transportation priorities are backwards.  While we waste taxpayer money on unnecessary highway expansion projects, local infrastructure crumbles, hurting our communities and undermining future economic prosperity.  We need leadership who will get our priorities straight,” concluded Speight. 

    To read the WISPIRG Foundation report, click here.  To read WISPIRG Foundation’s series on Wisconsin’s misplaced transportation priorities and the end of America’s driving boom, go here.