YORKVILLE — With road conditions deteriorating as a brutal winter rolls on, two prominent state lawmakers at a Racine County legislative breakfast Monday noted a need to explore different ways of funding road construction, even including tollways.
State Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, advocated tolls as a better way to pay for roads than relying on gas taxes, though they acknowledged toll roads probably won’t become a reality in Wisconsin anytime soon.
Vos said he is meeting today with members of Wisconsin’s federal delegation in Washington, D.C., and tollways will be among the items he will discuss.
Toll roads would require federal approval because they use the federal Interstate system, and legislators said the prospects are dim. Not looking at options like tollways, however, could mean doubling the fuel tax, Vos said. About 75 to 80 percent of money in the state’s transportation fund comes from that tax, he said.
“As a Republican I don’t stand up saying ‘it’s great we’re going to raise fees,’ ” Vos said. “But I do believe people should pay for what they use.”
Barca and Vos exchanged jabs throughout the breakfast, which was attended by other state legislators and 20 county staffers, department heads and supervisors.
However, they agreed on tolls. Barca criticized the amount of borrowing the state does for road improvements and said tolls could be a more stable long-term option to address infrastructure needs.
Gas tax revenue will likely decrease as vehicles become more energy efficient, Barca said, so the state has to look at other sources.
“This is a huge problem and I think counties and everyone around the state needs to carefully analyze this,” Barca said.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, who chairs a subcommittee that has jurisdiction over tollways, didn’t dismiss the idea. Petri, R-Fond du Lac, believes “tolls may make sense in some circumstances but should be looked at individually,” spokesman Lee Brooks said.
Toll policy will likely be reviewed later this year, Brooks said.
If not tolls, then what?
The talk of tollways was part of a broader discussion about problems with the state’s transportation fund. For years, the state has largely borrowed money to fund road work because few other options exist, according to Vos.
Raising fees on driver’s licenses and license plates, tying registration fees to the value of the vehicle, putting a sales tax on gasoline — all things other states have tried — won’t bring enough money to make an impact, Vos said.
The state could also look at cutting expenses, which Vos supports. He said the $150 million directed toward public transit should be cut, not because transit is not worthy of funding but because “it’s much more of a social program in my mind than a transportation program.”
The transportation fund should focus on infrastructure like roads and bridges, he said.
Vos also took aim at the Wisconsin State Patrol, saying those duties could be handled by local agencies.
“I think the state troopers shouldn’t even exist. I’ve said that over and over to the governor,” Vos said.
“That’s how you know Robin will never talk himself out of a speeding ticket to a state trooper,” Barca quipped.
Pain felt locally
The state’s transportation funding woes have directly affected Racine County.
A repaving of Interstate 94 scheduled for last fall was pushed to this spring because cost estimates were too high and the state didn’t have enough money to fund the project, County Executive Jim Ladwig said.
County crews in January made temporary repairs to hold the road over until spring, though Ladwig said it’s possible the project could be delayed again if the cost is too high.
Officials also asked for the state’s help in repairing other county highways, including Highway K, which runs between Caledonia and Norway, and Highway D, which cuts through Rochester.
The state is monitoring road conditions but won’t know how bad problems truly are until after the winter when the streets thaw, Vos said.
He left open the possibility of the Legislature allocating additional funding for road repairs should the need arise.