Evers’ Budget Will Begin Conversation About State’s Roads, Stakeholders Hope

Transportation Secretary Not Opposed To Tolling, But Says It's Not Right For A Quick Fix

Road construction fills a pothole
Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

State and local transportation officials say Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget will help spark a discussion over the best ways to raise money to improve roads — something that’s been lacking in the state for more than a decade.

“We’re trying to focus on the here-and-now. We tried to have a laser-focus on fixing what we have right now, and that’s where we tried to put our money,” said Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson.

The governor’s budget recommends an overall increase in transportation funding of $537.7 million over the next two years.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Highlights that could affect new revenue in the future include:

  • Raising the state’s gas tax by 8 cents per gallon — an amount that could be offset by eliminating the minimum markup law on motor fuel.

  • Allowing for an annual consumer price index increase for the gas tax based on inflation.

  • Raising the registration fee for heavy trucks by 27 percent.

The gas tax in Wisconsin used to be automatically indexed. It was repealed in 2005 by a Republican Legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

“It simply allows inflationary increases, so that we can keep up with the costs as they move forward and we don’t keep getting into theses crises,” Thompson said.

Thompson said compared with other Midwestern states, the Evers’ administration has a conservative plan to raise the gas tax.

“If you look at our neighbors, Minnesota’s governor is proposing to raise their gas tax 20 cents. The Ohio governor is proposing to raise their (gas tax) 18 cents. Michigan’s governor is proposing to raise their (gas tax) 45 cents. What we are proposing here in Wisconsin is a very pragmatic, practical approach,” said Thompson.

Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, said Evers’ budget is the first in a dozen years to propose more revenue to fund transportation improvements.

Fedderly said it helps set the stage for an actual discussion about the way road improvements are funded in Wisconsin.

“I would encourage both our leadership in the Legislature and all of the folks around to get in the room and have the discussion. Let’s see what direction we can go,” he said.

“Ultimately, it sets us up for success. I’m a firm believer that the public is saying, ‘Come on, let’s get something done. Enough is enough,’ Fedderly added. “We’re seeing the decline in our road system and the time has come to do something.”

Eau Claire County has $75 million in needed road repairs and another $35 million in bridge replacement costs, according to Eau Claire County highway commissioner Jon Johnson.

The Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors enacted a $30-per-vehicle wheel tax that’s expected to raise $2.39 million for additional road repairs in 2019. But Johnson said more money from the state would be welcome.

“It’s very good for the local units of government like Eau Claire County to see this. This is a large part of the pie that we needed to get taken care of,” Johnson said.

Some Republican lawmakers have suggested creating a tolling system to help pay for road improvements.

Thompson said he’s not opposed to setting up a tolling pilot program in southeastern Wisconsin, which has a lot of interstate roads that need to be replaced. But he said that’s a long-range project.

“There’s nothing that could have been solved in this budget with tolling. The only way to address the issue right now would be to try to (increase) some of the fees that we have,” said Thompson.

The federal government would have to give its approval to Wisconsin to begin a toll system.