Driving backwards

It’s hard to see how Wisconsin can have a vibrant and sturdy economy without good roads and a strong transportation infrastructure. It’s even harder to see how we can have those things with the current approach favored by those calling the shots at the Capitol.

Of all the options available for taking care of our roads and bridges, the two worst ones — neglecting basic upkeep and relying on heavy borrowing — have been the pillars of state transportation policy for several years now.

This approach has taken its toll. By one measure, we now have the fourth worst roads in the country. By another, Wisconsin is 49th out of 50 states in road quality. Bridges in the state have been allowed to deteriorate to their worst condition since 2003. That’s not my assessment, it’s the Federal Highway Administration’s.

The Capitol crowd’s answer to our crumbling roads and bridges? Cut maintenance funding and road worker pay and slap a new fee on hybrid vehicles. Lawmakers were more than two months late in putting together a budget, and the one they came up with will cause the quality of Wisconsin’s roads to further deteriorate, according to the state Department of Transportation.

What’s even worse is we’re putting so much road spending on a credit card instead of paying as we pave. Back in 2000, only 7 cents of every dollar in Wisconsin’s road fund went to repaying debt. This year, 20 cents out of every dollar raised for roads isn’t paying for roads but rather goes for debt payments. Under the new budget, the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance estimates the portion of transportation fund revenue going to debt payments will rise to almost 24% by 2019.

Saddling future generations with more debt is not a responsible answer to our road woes. Neither is pandering to the powerful road building industry by favoring new construction and highway expansion over basic upkeep to the point where small towns and rural areas are left with no choice but to tear up paved roads and go back to gravel because they can’t afford to keep filling the potholes. Wisconsin is going backwards.

Discouraging fuel conservation by punishing hybrid car ownership also is a short-sighted and irresponsible response to what ails our roads. Thriving economically and surviving ecologically in the 21st Century means embracing a clean energy future and depending less on fossil fuels.

There are better ways. Responsible ways. Prioritize road maintenance. Fix the roads we’ve already got before expanding or building new ones. End the reckless borrowing. Pay as we pave. Bring back gas tax indexing to adjust for inflation and keep revenue in line with road expenses. That policy was started in 1985 with support from both Republicans and Democrats and kept Wisconsin’s roads among the finest in the country until it was abruptly ended 20 years later.

What we can’t afford is the toxic combination of neglecting upkeep and borrowing for new construction that is Wisconsin’s current approach. We can’t have bad roads and a good economy. And our kids and grandkids can’t have more debt and a bright future.