by TDA Executive Director Debby Jackson
We all know that Wisconsin's transportation funding challenges are long in the making and not solved by the recently enacted federal infrastructure law. The much-needed additional federal money will allow Wisconsin to make progress on some key objectives. Nonetheless, it alone will not address all our transportation network's pressing needs.
But let's not kid ourselves. There are people who think that with the "windfall" of federal funds, the problem of our underfunded system is in our past or at least paused.
Just look at Ohio as an example. In 2019, the Republican governor and a legislature controlled by the same party passed a package that increased the state gas tax by 10.5 cents per gallon and the diesel tax by 19 cents and implemented annual registration fees for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. This was the compromise. The governor originally requested an 18-cent gas tax increase.
Now, an Ohio state senator (R) wants to roll back the state's gasoline tax and other user fees to pre-2019 levels for the next five years. And he has 15 co-sponsors at this time, seven less than the 22 senators that approved the 2019 user fee increases.
"The federal government is giving us ten times more money than what we thought we would need for our infrastructure costs. Why don't we give it back to Ohioans to spend themselves to generate more money in our economy?" the senator said. "The gas tax is really a tax on the poor because they can least afford another $5 or $10 a month more in gas."
Now, I don't know how the senator is making his calculations. According to news reports, the senator says the increased state user fees are expected to generate around $1.5 billion annually, which is questionable as that is more than the roughly $900 million estimated at the time of the package's enactment. He compares this to the $2.3 billion a year he says the state will receive from the federal infrastructure law. However, he is obviously not taking Ohio's base federal funding into account. Back that out, and the increase in federal formula transportation dollars is about $550 million yearly.
Walking away from the 2019 user fee increases necessary to maintain the Ohio's transportation system seems like a move in the wrong direction to me. And it appears the governor agrees as he has asked legislators to put the brakes on this proposal.
In addition, the great majority of a panel of 32 Ohio economists said in a survey that the proposal to cut the state's gas tax is a bad idea. As one economist wrote, "This proposal simply shifts burdens; while motorists save pennies at the pump, dollars will be spent on expedited vehicle depreciation and in repair shops over the five years plus of highway maintenance neglect."
Ohio is not alone. I am currently tracking seven other states considering undoing recent increases to the gas tax, pausing inflationary increases, or floating gas tax holidays. I am not saying anything like this will pop up in Wisconsin. Still, we should proceed as if it could. To that end, TDA's January blog (below) tackles the boost in federal funding and how it plays only a part in Wisconsin possibly moving beyond slowing the decline of transportation conditions to actually improving the system. This column is the first of many planned communications to set the narrative.
In 2022, we need to:
- Get ready to move projects and programs forward;
- Explain what the federal money will do and what it won't do;
- Show how increased investment will benefit the public and our economy; and
- Highlight new and growing hurdles to sustainable transportation funding, including increased fuel economy, the transition to electric vehicles, and inflation.
We have a lot of work to do. Traditionally in the spring, TDA heads to DC for the Fly-in. All the same, the timing is not right for an event this spring. This decision, reached with member input, is as much about the amount of work many members must do early this year to ensure Wisconsin can obligate all its fiscal year 2022 funds as it is about COVID and the DC mandates and restrictions. We continue to look for possible options later this year.
We must seize the moment and ensure this infusion of federal funds is the next step toward ongoing and adequate funding for a transportation system that supports Wisconsin's vibrant communities and growing economy. Otherwise, we will be playing a zero-sum game.