Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Senate Dems and the transportation budget

The Senate Dems have made the proposed transportation budget better.

That's different than saying they have built a good transportation budget. It's just a less bad budget, with a rare glimmer of "good." There's still way too much highway spending -- in fact there is even more than the Joint Finance Committee recommended. And those tax and fee increases -- there's more of them, too.

The state could fund a lot of good alternative transportation programs and maintain highways without so many tax hikes if it would just cut back on road-building a little bit. (Although, yes, tax the heck out of SUV registrations.)

The Dems' budget would boost all sorts of spending. It would boost general transportation aids by almost $8 million so municipalities and counties could fix their roads.

Mass transit assistance would go up by almost $8 million, which is a start, but isn't enough to keep the buses rolling in the long term, especially in Milwaukee County. State officials obviously are frustrated at the transit impasse between Mayor Tom Barret and County Executive Scott Walker, but that particular political tiff doesn't mean much to people standing on corners waiting for their buses. State transit funding ought to be about those folks, not about punishing or rewarding political friends and foes.

Specialized transportation for the elderly and disabled under the Dems' budget would go up by $202,500, which is kind of a joke or an insult, depending on your point of view. The Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line extension would get its $15 per vehicle car rental tax funding.

The Dems would even require the Department of Transportation to do some financial planning, which the department just is stinky at right now. WisDOT, under the Dems' plan, would have to submit 10-year revenue and bonding estimates with each budget. What a concept, eh? Giving a clue about the total costs of road-building before sending taxpayers the bills.

Still, WisDOT just doesn't get that the state has to start moving away from single-occupancy vehicles and toward a much broader transit scenario. The issues involved are serious, ranging from oil dependency to climate change to water quality. (A lot of that that nasty, nasty highly-contaminated highway runoff ends up in our rivers and lakes.)

The Senate Dems' proposal still would approve expansion of north-south I-94 from south of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line to the south side of Milwaukee, even though there is no design plan, no funding plan, and no budget for this project.

The Dems would go ahead with the accelerated reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, even though the construction phases of the north-south project and the Zoo Interchange project would overlap, driving up costs. The Dems would not, however, grant automatic approval to expand the Interchange, which is something the governor requested.

The Dems also would increase the already bloated highway development fund by another $36.5 million, keeping the "Pave Wisconsin Program" alive and well. See how it works? $8 million for transit, $36.5 million for highways. Not exactly the balanced transportation system people keep saying we need.

And then there's the pork. Whoa, this particular Dem package was born oinking. There's $2.1 million to improve County Highway H on Madeline Island, $800,000 to extend 39th Ave. from 18th St. to 26th St. in Kenosha, $150,000 for a trail in Whitewater, $400,000 for streetscaping on 6th St. in Racine, $50,000 for restoration of a historic bridge in the Town of Armstrong Creek and $15,000 for a walking trail in, appropriately enough, the Village of Footville.

Better, but not good.

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