Changes in Washington Bring Road Funding Discussion

When the new administration takes over in Washington tomorrow there will be a new Transportation Secretary. That will be Elaine Chao.

Chao is a Washington veteran having served in high-level positions in previous Republican administrations. And unlike many of the new president’s appointments her confirmation hearing was uneventful and she enjoys wide bipartisan support.

Chao promised senators a more detailed plan within 30 days on how the administration would make good on a campaign pledge to invest $1 trillion to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure.

And it was notable that she admitted that at least some of that would be taxpayer dollars. That’s important because some Republicans had talked about a vague idea to fund these public investments solely through private sources. That would almost certainly drive up the price as large profits would no doubt be rolled into the projects and it would run the risk of turning over some public rights of way to private, for profit entities. Taxpayers and all road users have reason to be skeptical about that idea.

New U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

In addition, private businesses would likely only be interested in building and operating high profit, high volume thoroughfares like interstate highways. Rural Republicans and Democrats have rightly raised concerns about that since small roads are not likely to attract private investment.

So, while we don’t know what Chao thinks about cycling, she strikes us as a grounded, reasonable and intelligent person and, in this environment, that’s about the most anyone can hope for.

Also making news this week was Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) who all but conceded that a gas tax or registration fee increase will not happen in the next state budget. Vos has been supportive of a transportation tax increase (the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 2006), but Governor Scott Walker has been firm in his opposition unless corresponding tax cuts can be found. On Wednesday Vos admitted that he wasn’t going to be able to budge the governor on his position and it seems unlikely that hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts can be found to offset a gas tax or registration fee increase.

Still, the governor has proposed significant funding increases for local roads – where, after all, most cycling takes places. So, while we’re not certain that a no transportation tax increase position is good public policy in the long run, if the next budget delivers more dollars to local roads that’s a good thing for people who ride bikes.

But this also brings us back to the federal budget and Secretary Chao. Vos also said that the legislature may come back in the fall to adjust the state budget after the new federal budget is passed. (The state budget usually passes by around July 1st while the federal fiscal year starts a few months later.) And it’s possible that that new federal budget will contain substantial infrastructure investments that could change the equations yet again.

All of which is to say that this is a time of considerable interest in transportation funding at both the federal and state level and the Bike Fed will be in the mix, trying to make sure that there are resources there to make cycling and walking safer and more enjoyable.

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.

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