Tom Diehl: Ignoring our roads costs more than fixing them

November 27, 2018

WISCONSIN DELLS — Manufacturing, agriculture and tourism are the three pillars of the Wisconsin economy. Each of these industries relies on a reliable transportation system to get its products to market and its guests to their location.

Knowing this, I was deeply disappointed to see the head of the state’s largest business organization recently wrote a column in the State Journal criticizing then-candidate Tony Evers’ plan to finally fix our roads.

Evers ran on three important issues: health care, education and roads. He won. Voters agreed with Evers that our roads are some of the worst in the country, according to most national rankings. A full 64 percent of likely voters in the final Marquette Law School poll, released six days prior to the election, graded Wisconsin roads as fair or poor. That’s terrible. But these same voters weren’t scared off by the ridiculous claim by Evers’ opponents that he would raise gas taxes by as much as $1 per gallon to fix them.

The tourism and agriculture industries understand that fixing our roads will require new revenues. A growing list of stakeholder groups have aligned in support of additional revenues to fix our roads and bridges, and a solution will require leadership from Gov.-elect Evers and a bipartisan approach. In the past, manufacturers have supported modest increases in user fees including raising the gas tax and registration fees to fund transportation. Let’s hope they see the benefit of solving the problem rather than continuing to kick the can down the road.

The budget proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation last week anticipates revenues from the gas tax will continue to decline over the next two-year state budget. That means less money to fix our roads and bridges if we do nothing.

What is the cost of continuing to put our collective heads in the sand and not fixing our transportation funding problem? Significant:

The national advocacy group TRIP reported in September that the average motorist in Wisconsin pays $747 per year in additional vehicle operating costs due to driving on substandard highways and streets. These additional costs include accelerated vehicle depreciation as well as increased repair costs, fuel consumption and tire wear.Farmers and businesses in rural Wisconsin repeatedly complain about the lost productivity and additional costs they face when bridges and roads serving their fields are weight restricted.Many lost economic opportunities can never be calculated when tourism visitors and businesses choose not to come to Wisconsin because of the condition of our roads.

Gov.-elect Evers is reaching across the aisle to try to find a bipartisan consensus on ways to rebuild our deteriorating highways and bridges. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and his GOP caucus have shown a willingness to work with Evers to find a solution. That’s very refreshing.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans deserve credit for enacting numerous reforms to ensure our transportation dollars are being spent efficiently. But those savings were a drop in the bucket of what is truly needed.

Voters chose the gubernatorial candidate who said, “All options are on the table for fixing our roads.” Now they expect action.

Gas taxes are user fees. You only pay them if you use the infrastructure. They haven’t been raised in more than a decade. It will cost our economy a lot more if we do nothing and our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate than it will cost to raise user fees by a modest amount to fix the problem.

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