The Assembly will take up the state budget next week, which again raises the question: why do so many conservatives complain about government spending, except when it comes to road-building? There is a lot that is very ugly in the transportation budget requested by the Department of Transportation, proposed by the governor, and approved by Joint Finance. The Senate improved some things, but threw even more money into major highway programs, a big step backwards. Hey, folks, even the Government Accountability Office says we ought to prepare for peak oil, and remember that little global warming thing? Not to mention about highways, once we build the damned things, someone's got to take care of them and that's the unsexy, boring part the state does not do very well. WisDOT even basically gave up on controlling invasive species on state rights-of-way three years ago, meaning local units of government and private property owners get to deal with those particular threats to the environment and the economy.
As the Assembly rushes to prove that Republicans are not serious about controlling road taxes as long as they can be called fees, a short review of the good and bad in the Senate transportation budget.
The good news is that the Senate:
• Deleted a provision that would allow the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to go ahead with reconstructing the Zoo Interchange if additional lanes are recommended in a study that won’t be done for a few years and has barely gotten underway. The Senate, in short, declined to promise to pay for a huge freeway project that is undesigned, does not have a price tag, and is without a funding plan.
• Adopted a provision that would prohibit freeway expansion on I-94 along the stretch of freeway in Milwaukee that is adjacent to Wood National Cemetery. This cemetery is one of the first veteran’s cemeteries in the country and holds graves of veterans from every war except the Revolutionary War. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission thought it would be a swell idea to suspend freeway lanes in the air directly above graves in the cemetery.
• Adopted a requirement that the Department of Transportation start some serious financial planning. WisDOT would have to submit, with every budget request, a 10-year projection of total revenue and of total bonding needs. WisDOT also would be required to develop different scenarios for different funding levels and bonding levels and would be required to describe the impacts of increasing debt service costs. This is huge. WisDOT now doesn’t do squat for planning, and builds whatever it can get the Legislature to commit to in any two-year cycle.
• Proposed 2.5% increase in mass transit operating assistance, plus an additional $4 million for the Milwaukee County Transit System. Doyle had proposed a flat 2% increase. Under the Senate budget, MCTS would get $63.8 million in 2008 and $65.3 million in 2009; under the Doyle budget, MCTS would get $60.3 million in 2008 and $61.5 million in 2009.
The bad news is that the Senate:
• Went along with a proposal to allow WisDOT to proceed with construction of North-South I-94, if additional lanes are recommended, from south of the Illinois state line to Milwaukee. This approval would be granted even though WisDOT has not presented any designs for the project, doesn’t have a budget and can’t say how it would be paid for.
• Added another $36.6 million to the major highway project development budget. The governor already had proposed increases of $13.6 million in the major highway budget, plus $181.7 million in a separate highway budget to begin reconstruction of North-South I-94.
• Maintained the accelerated schedule for the Zoo Interchange reconstruction, and included $24 million for studies related to same. As we’ve said before, the overlap in the construction schedules for the Zoo Interchange project and the North-South project will only drive up costs because the state will be competing against itself for equipment and workers.
The Senate also reinstated the $15-per-vehicle car rental tax in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties to fund the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail extension. Generally that would be good news, but there still is no permanent fix to the Milwaukee County Transit System funding crisis, and it's just hard to celebrate raising millions in taxes, mostly in Milwaukee that for a commuter rail system that will mostly benefit Racine (at least that's what Racine Democrat State Sen. John Lehman said during the Joint Finance debate) when Milwaukee mass transit, which is absolutely critical to thousands of city residents, doesn't have a guaranteed funding base.