Governor’s budget proposal looks like a good start

It has been one very strange year in politics. On that – and maybe only that – we can all agree.

And it just got more weird.

Gov. Scott Walker shared his transportation blueprint for the next budget session this week, and it’s surprisingly not bad if you like to ride a bike.

Let’s start with the first bizarre thing – the timing.

Usually, the Wisconsin governor introduces his budget in February, long after the November elections, and after the new Legislature is seated in January. (The governor is not up for re-election this year, but all 99 seats in the Assembly and half of the 33 State Senate seats are up now.)

By revealing the roads-and-bridges plan developed by his Department of Transportation, Walker started the debate months earlier than the norm. He didn’t reveal any other major parts of his budget – on education, natural resources, corrections, etc.

Why just transportation?.

We’re not sure, but it does signal that transportation will be a key issue in the November legislative elections. Candidates will be forced to take a position on this budget proposal, one already under fire from his own party’s legislative leaders.

Governor Walker shifted gears and put more money into state highways and local roads, while slowing major highway expansions like the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee and Verona Road in Madison. That allows him to fill a budget gap in transportation without tax increases and while cutting back on borrowing.

From a cycling perspective, investing more in maintenance and local roads is a good thing. It’s county and town highways and city and village streets where we do almost all of our riding. Basically, the governor’s budget would mean a better chance that a shoulder will be paved or a pothole fixed.

More of these could go away under Governor Walker’s proposed 2017-2019 transportation budget.

As for the delays in the major highway projects, that’s not something that would impact people on bikes one way or the other, and the Bike Fed won’t take a position on that part of the budget.

The politics of this will surely get interesting. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) along with the Transportation Development Association (the road-building lobby with whom we can sometimes make common cause), wasted no time criticizing the governor’s approach.

Their criticism isn’t based on an increase in the programs we like, but on their opposition to the delay in the major projects. So, basically, we don’t have a dog in that fight. As long as maintenance and local roads aren’t cut from what the governor proposes, we should be okay.

But here’s where it gets tricky. In order to maintain the increases the governor has proposed and add back funding for the major highway expansions, Speaker Vos and his partners would have to raise taxes – probably the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. There again, that’s not our fight. As long as they don’t propose taxing bicycles, tax increases to support transportation projects isn’t something we’re likely to fight or support. (I’ll write more about why taxing bicycles is a terrible idea in a future post.)

Also, keep in mind that the governor can veto any budget he doesn’t like. It seems to us that any move to increase taxes to pay for major highway expansions would have a very tough time garnering enough votes to overcome a gubernatorial veto.

Of course, none of this deals with direct investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Wisconsin already spends as little as it can in that regard. We’ll fight for more, but for now just knowing that more is likely to be invested in road maintenance and in local roads seems like a significant step in the right direction.

This is just the first scene in act one of a very long drama that won’t close its curtain until the governor signs a budget, probably next August. But from a cycling perspective, we like the opening lines.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

4 thoughts on “Governor’s budget proposal looks like a good start

  1. Cognitive dissonance, but I’ll take it!

    Gas taxes should be higher. If we want to get serious about …

    - promoting clean energy innovation
    - encouraging density not sprawl for healthy quality of life and sustainable land use
    - fighting climate change
    - securing US energy independence
    - weakening instead of bankrolling the world’s worst petro-dictator regimes

    … we need to stop subsidizing gasoline and driving at current levels.

  2. Peter, on a personal level I totally agree. But right now the sad truth is that any gas tax increase wouldn’t got towards any of the good things on your list. Rather those increases would go to expanding highways leading to still more driving and results that are just the opposite of the values we share.

  3. Dave,
    After reading your thoughts on the transportation budget it comes at a perfect time. Bike riders are getting grief for using the roads from all sorts of people . Particularly the people we share the road with. If maintenance and local roads are the star of the transportation budget then bicyclists are the best allies motorized vehicles can have. We all benefit from maintenance and new construction of local roads. Our voices can be heard even better with the combined volume.

  4. I wonder about the rationale for moving about 1/2 of the TA federal grant to the roads budget. Is it to help fund walking and bicycling facilities in programmed roads projects? I was looking at the TIP for The Green Bay Urbanized Area in Brown County and noticed a number of roads projects are scheduled to receive bike lanes and sidewalks I don’t think these are a result of TA applications. Is the rationale that the disbursement to roads work will ensure funding of these projects so the state moves toward a more common emphasis of building multi-modal facilities whether there is distinct project funding or not? My particular concern here is, the wide range of project types eligible for TA funding can spread the small allotment pretty thin or leave lots of worthwhile programs unfunded.

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