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Journal Times editorial: The time for toll roads has arrived in Wisconsin

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Now that the long Memorial Day holiday is over and legislators and the governor have returned from their road trips, we hope they have a better sense of the condition of highways around the state and a renewed sense of urgency on the need for upgrades and repairs.

The first order of business, it would seem to us, is to come to some agreement on a state transportation budget for the next two years. Hopefully, hopefully, when that is done they will also take a longer-term view of Wisconsin’s highway construction needs and how best they should be met — and that should include taking the first steps toward implementing toll roads on our Interstate highway system.

That will not happen overnight — it will require getting federal approval and it will incur capital costs of somewhere around $400 million, so it is all the more important to get that ball rolling down the highway right now.

In short order, it would create a new revenue stream to fund our transportation system that would bring in — according to a Department of Transportation study — an estimated $29 billion in revenue over 30 years.

That’s almost $1 billion a year and, coincidentally, that is almost double the $1 billion transportation deficit Wisconsin is facing in the current two-year budget “crisis.”

Yes, those costs would be borne by highway travelers. Depending on the toll rates and their setup, by some estimates the Interstate toll fee could cost a motorist between $2.72 and $8.16 to travel from Milwaukee to Madison. It could cost $5 to $15 to go from Milwaukee to La Crosse.

That’s a “tax” that would fall directly on those who are using the Interstate — those who are creating the wear and tear that necessitates repair and replacement work. It would also cause the burden of those costs to be shared with travelers from out of state and not fall solely on Wisconsin drivers.

That apparently is not lost on state residents. According to a Marquette Law School poll, 56 percent of respondents to a statewide poll said they would be willing to accept tolling to pay for roads. No other source of road funding topped 40 percent.

Here in southeastern Wisconsin, we have implored, cajoled and pleaded for our Legislature and the governor to come to grips with the need to complete the reconstruction of I-94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line in order to support the rapidly expanding businesses along the Interstate corridor — only to see delays.

Instead of righting the ship with short-term and long-term highway funding plans, the governor and the Legislature have been performing a horrifying vaudeville show laced with intransigence. Gov. Scott Walker favors borrowing and delays on projects to deal with the two-year budget needs and the $1 billion shortfall; Republicans in the Senate oppose raising the gas tax; Assembly Republicans put out a proposal last month to cut the gas tax, but impose sales taxes on gas — and transition the state to a flat income tax rate.

Like a bad production of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” over the past four months, we have been treated to a litany of “Too Hot,” “Too Cold,” “Too This,” “Too That.”

What is particularly amazing is that Republicans have their hands on the controls of the governor’s mansion and both the Senate and Assembly. Democrats are left outside, warbling about bringing back gas tax indexing.

It’s summer. That means road construction season. The governor and the Legislature need to sit down, make some compromises on a short-term porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold for their tastes and then set sights on a long-term fix for the state’s transportation funding needs: toll roads.


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