Tony Evers to tap Craig Thompson, advocate for transportation revenue boost, to lead WisDOT

December 22, 2018

Gov.-elect Tony Evers has picked to lead the state Department of Transportation a vocal advocate for more revenue for transportation projects: Craig Thompson, who leads the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association.

A source close to the Evers transition not authorized to be identified confirmed Thompson will be the pick.

Evers is expected to formally announce the pick Friday in Madison, where he will hold a press conference to unveil additional cabinet appointments. The transition source did not indicate who, in addition to Thompson, will be announced.

Thompson, 49, is executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, an influential transportation advocacy group. Its members include businesses, unions, citizen groups, local units of government and individuals that back “development and maintenance of a strong, interconnected transportation network.”

The role of transportation secretary is seen as crucial to Evers’ support for boosting the state’s revenue stream for road, bridge and transit projects. To do so, Evers — a Democrat who will become governor in January — must win support during the 2019 budget debate from a GOP Legislature that’s divided on the issue.

Thompson, when asked about the appointment, declined to comment for this story.

Like other Cabinet posts, Thompson’s appointment would be subject to a majority confirmation vote by the state Senate.

Thompson’s role with the transportation association includes being its public spokesman, providing analysis of transportation legislation and policy, and registering to lobby for the group.

Thompson lives in Madison and is a Racine native. He has never worked for or held a partisan office. His résumé includes more than a decade with the transportation association and, prior to that, working as legislative director for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Thompson also has been appointed to “numerous boards and committees by governors of both parties, including Tommy Thompson, Scott McCallum, Jim Doyle and Scott Walker,” according to his bio on the association’s website.

If confirmed, Thompson would take the helm of a department that has been a political hot-button in recent years.

The current DOT secretary under outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker is Dave Ross, who took the post in early 2017.

Ross succeeded Mark Gottlieb, a former GOP lawmaker, who resigned after clashing with Walker on the need for more funding for transportation projects — which Gottlieb viewed as necessary but Walker opposed. Gottlieb’s departure came just after he testified to lawmakers that state data show the share of state highways in Wisconsin in poor condition would double during the next decade without an infusion of new revenue.

Transportation funding was the key stumbling block to completion of the most recent state budget, enacted about 10 weeks overdue in September 2017. Assembly Republicans acknowledged the need for more transportation revenue to keep road conditions from deteriorating and were open to addressing it by increasing gas taxes or vehicle registration fees or collecting highway tolls.

But Senate Republicans were divided on the issue. Walker, meanwhile, opposed any tax or fee increase not offset elsewhere in the budget with a corresponding reduction to another tax or fee.

Walker and lawmakers ultimately settled on a budget that included only a tiny revenue boost for transportation, through fee hikes on hybrid vehicles. It also kept on schedule most ongoing major highway projects, including expansions of Verona Road in Fitchburg and Interstate 39-90 from the Madison area to the Illinois line.

But to do so, the budget increased the state’s already heavy reliance on borrowing to fund transportation projects, adding more than $400 million to the tab. It cut about $80 million in funding for upkeep of state highways, which DOT data has indicated may accelerate their deterioration . And it leaves in doubt the future of planned major highway projects.

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