As the global coronavirus pandemic cuts into state revenue generated by travel, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ 2021-23 budget calls for additional borrowing to pay for road projects across the state.
Evers’ budget proposal, unveiled Feb. 16, calls for borrowing for road and infrastructure projects calls for bonding to increase more than $220 million from the previous budget to $555.8 million.
The reasoning behind the increased borrowing, according to Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson, is because of the economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
“Heading into this budget, we looked at really continuing on the tremendous progress that we made in the last budget, knowing that we still have a ways to go,” Thompson said Feb. 18 during a conference call with ag media. “As the governor looked at this, we did determine that with a pandemic going on and the uncertainty of the economy right now, this was probably not the right time to increase revenues again and ask people to pay more. But at the same time, we didn’t want to backslide on all the progress we had made in the last budget.”
Thompson said the proposed borrowing is still well below what it was over the course of the four year periods for the past 12 years, adding that it allows the state “to maintain our purchasing power in our state highway rehabilitation programs so that we can continue to fix our two lane state highways.”
Thompson said the increases in this budget are for local units of government, with a 2% increase each year for towns, cities, villages and counties for their general transportation needs. Another $75 million program will allow local governments to apply for additional funds.
“When we look at our transportation network and system in Wisconsin, the amount of paved roads that we have in the state is fairly unique,” Thompson said. “And that really is because of our agriculture heritage and just how important it is to our economy.
“When we talk about our transportation system, we really do talk about the fact that we are an agriculture-, manufacturing- and tourism-based economy and our transportation system has to facilitate that.”
According to TRIP, the National Transportation Research Nonprofit, 36% of Wisconsin’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
A 2019 report from the TRIP said Wisconsin’s rural roads are among the most deteriorated in the country, with nearly 20% classified as being in poor condition.
Thompson said Evers’ focus since he began his campaign for governor has been on the state’s transportation infrastructure, which had faced decades of neglect.
Following Evers’ first budget proposal in 2019, the state Legislature shot down an 8-cent gas tax but voted to increase title and registration fees. Thompson said the amount of money raised through fees was about the same as what would have come from the gas tax, so the state increased revenues over the past two years by a little over $460 million.
Of that money, Thompson said $320 million of it went to fixing two lane state highways across all 72 Wisconsin counties and the remainder went to our local units of government to be able to accelerate fixing local roads and bridges.
“When I’ve talked to agriculture interests all across the state, we’ve heard so many times that we need to fix our roads, we need to get bridges that are posted that they can’t get some of the weights over,” Thompson said, adding that he heard from many in the industry that would support the state’s efforts to raise revenue as long as local road issues were addressed.
Evers first budget also included the $75 million grant program funded by the Legislature with funds allocated to the Local Roads Improvement Program for projects that were divided between counties, villages and cities and towns.
According to statistics from the DOT, Wisconsin has more than 112,000 miles of public roadway within the state, and about 12,000 miles of that comprise the State Trunk Highway system. The remaining 100,000 miles of roads and streets are maintained by the cities, villages, counties and towns in which they are located, playing a key role in farmers getting their products to market.
“From the first mile off the farm to the last mile to the consumer, maintaining our state’s transportation infrastructure is critical to the success of our agriculture industry,” Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski said.