Adding tolls to the Wisconsin highway system may be an option to improve deteriorating roads, several local lawmakers agree.
But some can’t say that’s the best solution, although the state’s top Republicans endorsed toll roads earlier this week as the best way to generate revenue for highway improvements.
Upon election last fall to the 68th Assembly District, Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said he vowed he’d examine every approach to fixing roads in the district and throughout the state. Though James acknowledged the long-term revenue tolling could generate for the state, he said waiting for federal approval and obtaining research takes time and the state does need short-term solutions.
“It’s an option we need to look at. Do I know that it’s the best option? No, I don’t know yet,” James said. “Ultimately, we have to look at the best interest of all parties moving forward. This is all about Wisconsin residents.”
On Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos promised that Assembly and Senate Republicans wouldn’t fight about transportation funding as lawmakers write the 2019-21 state budget. He and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, advocated putting future road revenue efforts behind tolling.
In 2017, the current budget was delayed by almost three months because of infighting on how to fill a $1 billion shortfall in the transportation budget. Assembly Republicans proposed a gas tax increase, but then-Gov. Scott Walker threatened to veto an increase and Senate Republicans stood behind him.
Ultimately, the caucuses followed Walker’s plan to delay road projects and borrow more money, and Walker vetoed plans for a $2.5 million study on tolling, a move Vos called a mistake on Wednesday.
Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said tolling has both positives and negatives. Though it has revenue opportunities that could be beneficial to the state, a huge challenge could be gaining federal approval and the time that requires.
Federal law prohibits tolls on most interstate highways, but Wisconsin lawmakers could attempt to get permission. Vos suggested Wednesday that the state could also put tolls on state-funded roads and bridges without federal approval.
“It’s definitely something that should be looked at,” Johnson said, “but it’s something that takes a lot more time to implement than the other options like increasing registration prices or increasing the gas tax.”
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Mondovi, said adding tolls is an option, but is concerned about federal laws prohibiting tolls on most interstates.
“I like a lot of aspects of it, but the only issue is if we’re allowed to do it with the federal government,” Summerfield said. “There’s always two sides to the story of what’s the best way to fund our roads. ... I’m just looking forward to keeping the conversation going and hopefully coming to an agreement so that we can have our transportation needs met.”
Johnson said tolling may also push many folks to use secondary highways and back roads in order to avoid the cost of the tolls.
“The additional stress that can be put on secondary highways — that’s definitely a challenge ... Those roads aren’t as good for handling that,” Johnson said. “But the key is to make fares and rates reasonable so that people don’t.”
While recognizing current federal limitations and the possibility that some traffic could divert to back roads, Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she thinks tolling is the best way to go for a long-term solution with a pass similar to Illinois’ pass system and other options that allow travelers to be billed later rather than having to stop at a pay station.
“This is a permanent revenue source that we can count on,” Bernier said. “In my opinion, this is the best way to go.”
Bernier also said that about half of those traveling on the state’s major highways are out-of-state travelers who do not contribute to funds for maintaining the roads. She also noted locals would likely know ways to get around tolling if they didn’t want to pay the fees, while others would not.
“We pay to drive through Illinois, so they can pay to drive through our state. I’m not adverse to that,” Bernier said. “There’s always a way around the tolls for the locals and they get accustomed to that. I would also think most Wisconsinites would go ahead and buy a pass, so they’d be covered.”
Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said although she wants to find a solution to Wisconsin’s deteriorating roads, she does not believe the main solution the state pursues should be tolling, noting the costs that would be associated with paying to install toll booths and the people who would man them.
“Tolling should be our absolute last resort as a revenue stream,” Emerson said. “It’s not going to be a simple return on investment like increasing the gas tax.”
Emerson also blamed Wisconsin’s GOP leadership for the current state of roads.
“They haven’t stepped up, so the roads are in the poor conditions that they are thanks to their poor leadership,” Emerson said. “So it’s time that maybe they take a hint from the other side of the aisle.”
James said he was interested in pursuing the option of a gas tax for revenue, noting that more of his constituents seemed to be in favor of raising the gas tax or vehicle registration costs.
Ultimately, James said he’s open to any solution and wants to see more research on them.
“There isn’t an immediate answer,” James said. “I want to learn about every single viable solution to see what’s out there.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.