Finding answer for funding transportation projects not easy

APPLETON — Transportation is an integral part to Wisconsin’s economy, but aging infrastructure means some tough decisions will need to be made soon to determine how to fund projects, according to participants in this week’s “Future of Wisconsin Transportation II” luncheon.

U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, and the event’s keynote speaker, quickly brought up a fact weighing on the minds of many people involved in the transportation industry: the Highway Trust Fund will run dry at some point this summer meaning Congress will need to come up with a way to keep paying for infrastructure improvements.

In the short term, Ribble believes an agreement will be made – “one that will basically rob Peter to pay Paul” – but that in the long term, Congress needs to seriously address how it funds transportation projects. Some type of tax increase, such as a higher gas tax or taxing products from refineries, are an option as is vehicle mileage assessments (VMTs).

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“This is a real crisis. We need to determine how we’re going to annually fund $70 billion worth of infrastructure work going forward,” said Ribble, the vice chair of the House Highways Subcommittee. “We’re at a place that we need to have taxpayers come along with us and understand why we need to do what we need to do.”

The bad winter may help that since many roads are now littered with potholes and as Ribble joked to municipal and county officials in the room: “I’m sure you’re getting a lot of calls about that. But people need to understand how roads are paid for.”

While some state legislators, including Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who attended the event, are in favor of tolls in Wisconsin, Ribble isn’t sure it would work.

“Wisconsin is a tough place to have toll roads since we don’t have any long distances, except Interstate 94. Toll roads are expensive and complicated,” Ribble said.

During a panel discussion with representatives from the transportation industry and local businesses, VMTs – where drivers would be charged based on how much many miles they travel annually – along with higher gas taxes seemed a popular method to raise transportation dollars.

“The state’s infrastructure is our workplace, and we at Schneider are ready to pay our fair share whether it’s through a VMT or higher gas tax,” said Tom Vandenberg, of Schneider National in Green Bay.

Tom Bressner, executive director of the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, said all Wisconsin roads from township and county roads to state highways and interstates need adequate funding so they are in the best condition possible so farmers can bring their products to market as fast as possible. “In transportation, it all comes down to having a network that works together,” he said.

Bressner pointed out that Brazil and Argentina have both invested heavily in infrastructure improvements and are now top exporters of soy beans. “We in Wisconsin produced 27 billion pounds of milk in 2013, and the goal is to get to 30 billion by 2030. All of that milk travels on roads, starting on township roads and then moving to county and state roads. They all need to be in good shape,” he said.

Josh Dukelow with the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry said area businesses need more workers and that some of them will need public transportation to get to their jobs. Valley Transit is working on a strategic plan that would look at ways to move people around besides fixed bus routes.

“It could be a commuter bus that runs only twice a day or maybe a car sharing program or a van pool,” Dukelow said. “We need to find ways to connect workers with jobs or else we may lose businesses who move to other locations where employees can easily get to work using mass transit.”

Fox Cities legislators, including Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D- Appleton, tried to get the Wisconsin Legislature to create a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) for the Fox Cities. Ribble said an RTA – which would have taxing authority — is a good solution to help fund mass transit projects.

“I think it’s best if decisions like this are best made on a local level, and an RTA can help with that,” Ribble said.

Schaber, who also attended Wednesday’s event, praised Ribble for his help on the RTA, which was passed by state Senate but failed to get out an Assembly committee. “I think there are a lot of things we can look at when it comes to finding a way to fund transportation projects, including indexing,” she said.

As for Murphy, in addition to toll roads adding to the state’s coffers, he thinks raising gas taxes and raising registration fees on electric cars or hybrids are also possible choices.

“We need to find a way to make up the loss of income from the gas tax because those owners are not buying gas,” he said.

In the end, money needs to come somewhere to pay for transportation projects, Ribble said.

“No one wants to tell Americans the bad news. If we continue to wait to make a bad decision, the choices will only get worse,” he said. organized the event at the Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. The luncheon was sponsored by WTBA, TDA Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Counties Association.

— By MaryBeth Matzek