When it Comes to Transportation Spending, Can Legislators Stomach Saying No?

June 16, 2015

By Matt Crumb
Research Associate at the MacIver Institute

Where We Are Now

Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal would borrow $1.3 billion for transportation projects throughout the state. While that total is a big increase compared to previous transportation bonding levels, the governor also proposed to freeze all new bonding on Building Commission projects, with the exception of $220 million for a new Bucks Arena in Milwaukee and two other smaller projects.

However, the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) recently approved $110 million in non-transportation borrowing for four projects. That would bring total borrowing in the 2015-17 biennium to around $1.4 billion. Under a new deal for funding the Bucks arena, the state would not authorize new bonding – it would instead come from the Wisconsin Center District in Milwaukee.

If $1.3 billion were approved for transportation, overall state bonding would be at its lowest level in a decade.

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Still, members of JFC are clearly concerned over relying so heavily on the “credit card” to fund Wisconsin’s infrastructure needs. Some have even suggested it would be better to delete $800 million in projects to lower borrowing over the next two years.

Back in November 2014, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb proposed raising taxes and fees by $750 million to help fund $1.36 billion in additional spending. Gottlieb wanted to raise the gas tax, increase vehicle registration fees, introduce brand new fees and take more money from the general fund to pay for his department’s wish list.

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The governor has made clear that he will not accept tax or fee increases for transportation spending, and his budget suggests an increase in borrowing instead.

With the legislature’s mind still not made up on the matter, there are rumors of a gas tax increase or vehicle-related fee increases to raise revenue for the Transportation Fund, which is the dedicated pot of money for transportation projects in Wisconsin. In fact, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) floated the idea of a $25 increase – a 33 percent hike – for the standard vehicle registration fee just two weeks ago.

Since then, the legislature has seemed to back away from a revenue upper given Walker’s position on the matter.

Transportation debt service in Wisconsin has been climbing over the last decade both in dollar amounts dedicated each year and as a percentage of Transportation Fund revenue. If the governor’s proposal is passed, transportation debt service payments will almost certainly exceed $300 million annually and represent 20 percent of transportation fund revenue.

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Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb maintains that the Governor’s proposals meet the state’s infrastructure needs for the biennium, however, and argues that projects outlive debt service.

Mysteriously absent from the transportation funding debate is any serious analysis on the quality and quantity of DOT spending. While special interests and public officials continue to beg for more money, Wisconsinites only see orange barrels and road construction everywhere they go.

If you literally cannot drive anywhere in this great state without dodging a crane or slowing to a crawl to avoid workers in a neon yellow vest, how is it Wisconsin needs more transportation taxes to pay for even more projects?

Wisconsin’s DOT is almost finished spending $7 billion statewide for the current budget biennium. Where in the world does it all go? Are we to take DOT at their word when it comes to state infrastructure needs and the necessary funds to meet them?

A closer look at current and near-future projects at DOT, as well as some questionable purchases, raises questions on how the agency is spending taxpayer money. Here are some facts on a few priorities that may deserve further scrutiny.

Going In Circles

Roundabouts are a hot topic in the transportation world as more states and localities are scrapping traditional traffic light intersections to install traffic circles instead. Wisconsin is no exception. There are a total of 68 new roundabouts statewide that have either recently been built or are planned to be built in the next few years. These will be added to 300 existing roundabouts throughout Wisconsin, a fact that the DOT brags about on its website.

Research from the Federal Highway Administration admits that the initial construction of a roundabout is typically more expensive than simply installing a traffic light. However, roundabouts are said to have lower long-term maintenance costs and safer traffic flows that makes the benefits worth the costs.

While the debate will continue on the overall cost effectiveness of roundabouts compared to stoplights, there are current roundabout projects enumerated by DOT that may be excessive or simply unneeded. Some of them are in relatively remote locations, miles away from any population center.

There are 40 roundabouts that are planned for just one project, the US-41 project in northeastern Wisconsin. Residents of the Green Bay area are currently witnessing the construction of 24 roundabouts in just a 14-mile stretch of US-41. That many circles is enough to make one dizzy! The Brown County portion of the US-41 project costs over $1 billion, a total that might have been lower without so many roundabouts. The project also includes the planting of 30,400 plants and shrubs and 4,100 trees.

In addition to the roundabout bonanza on US-41, the DOT has embarked on a few smaller roundabout projects that might leave taxpayers scratching their heads. For example, the DOT deems it necessary to rip up a perfectly serviceable highway intersection just north of Siren (population 806) in Burnett County and replace it with a roundabout. This project, at the intersection of WIS 70 and WIS 35, seems an odd priority given Burnett County’s relative remoteness (population 15,333) and, as the project map shows, it looks completely unnecessary. The WIS 70/35 roundabout project has a price tag of $3.5 million.

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Another roundabout project was recently completed just north of Amery (population 2,859) in Polk County. Once again, this roundabout replaced a perfectly good intersection at WIS 9 and WIS 46 in a sparsely populated area. The project cost $1.5 million to complete.

A question you might be asking at this point is how much does a simple traffic signal cost to install, in contrast to a roundabout. The Wisconsin DOT does not have a specific answer for this, but transportation agencies in other states have information on traffic signal costs. For example, the Washington State DOT says traffic signals cost $250,000 to $500,000 to purchase and install and about $8,000 a year to maintain. The Arizona DOT says traffic signals cost much less, or $80,000 to $100,000 to install and only $1,400 per year to maintain. The Wyoming DOT agrees more with Washington State, saying that a traffic signal costs between $200,000 and $500,000.

How about cost estimates that are closer to home?

The City of Menomonee Falls pegs traffic signal installations at $70,000 to $150,000, and Naperville, IL says its anywhere from $200,000 to $250,000, with annual maintenance costs of $2,000.

Whichever way you slice it, a traffic signal that costs hundreds of thousands is much cheaper than the roundabouts mentioned above that costs millions. It would also take decades for annual maintenance costs of $1,400 to $8,000 to bump up overall traffic signal costs to the millions.

With a budget proposal that relies more than ever on borrowing, Wisconsin’s taxpayers can ill afford going overboard on roundabouts.

Gone Fishing

A few DOT projects will even feature fishing accommodations. That’s right, our precious transportation dollars, the same transportation dollars that the department says we don’t have enough of to pay for road projects, are paying for fishing piers!

Winnecone (population 2,383) is getting new fishing piers to go with their new bridge over the Fox River. Fishing accommodations will also be part of the US-41 project. The Lake Butte des Morts Causeway section of US-41 in Oshkosh now boasts a recreational trail with fishing access along the whole Causeway thanks to taxpayers.

While fishing is a wonderful Wisconsin past time, there is simply no room for these sorts of pork projects. It is hard to take the DOT seriously when they cry poverty at the same time they are using current resources to construct fishing piers for small Wisconsin towns.

Not Just Any New Bridge

Speaking of bridges, citizens of Wrightstown (population 2,827) are getting a new bridge that will be exactly 100 feet south of an existing bridge over the Fox River. This is not just any bridge, however, as the new bridge will include pedestrian, bicycle, and snowmobile accommodations. According to the DOT’s own cost estimates of installing bicycle accommodations on bridges, bicycle lanes for the new Wrightstown bridge could cost anywhere from $500,000 to $632,000. That doesn’t even consider the extra room needed to get snowmobiles across.

The good people of Eau Claire will also see a new Water Street Bridge over the Chippewa River that is quite an upgrade. The bridge will include a five-foot bike lane on each side for cyclists, which would cost between $252,000 to $316,000 based on calculations using DOT cost estimates. In addition, pedestrians will enjoy an eight-foot sidewalk on each side of the new bridge.

The new Water Street Bridge won’t be short on decoration either, as the project describes decorative lighting and railings, artsy concrete and scenic overlooks. In fact, take a look for yourself at some of the decorative descriptions for the Water Street Bridge straight from the DOT website.

– Decorative lighting
– Decorative concrete on the piers and abutments to give the look of rock
– Decorative railings
– Baluster form liners on the concrete parapet walls (designs etched into the columns)
– Pedestals at the light locations
– Arched mask walls at pier locations
– Features incorporated into the piers, including making the bridge appear older by “antiquing” the concrete
– Outside faces of the concrete beams that will be painted
– Scenic overlooks will be constructed on the northeast and southwest quadrants of the new structure

Once again, it’s hard to see how an extravagant bridge for a two-lane street in Eau Claire meets the state’s transportation needs in a “tight” budget year.

If you think the Water Street Bridge is over the top, check out these pictures from the aforementioned Lake Butte des Mortes Causeway in Oshkosh. The DOT felt it necessary to have lovely murals on the beams under the Causeway bridge. Thats right, under the bridge where the only motorists who can view them are boaters.

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The Bypass To Nowhere

One of the most puzzling undertakings is the Baraboo Bypass project that stretches from the Devil’s Lake State Park area to the I-90/US-12 interchange just south of Wisconsin Dells. The project includes construction of an 11-mile four-lane bypass around Baraboo (population 12,000) and a new bike/pedestrian accommodation just east of Mirror Lake State Park. US-12 is a perfectly serviceable highway covering the same route as the bypass. Baraboo is also the only town along the route, and not a very big one at that.

In May, Bill Osmulski of the MacIver Institute decided to investigate how much traffic flows through this project area near Baraboo. Osmulski went to a few locations on US-12 around 8:00 am on a Friday morning, which is rush hour in most populated areas. What he found was a paltry amount of cars passing by. No backups, no honking drivers.

The entire Baraboo Bypass project has a price tag of $200 million. Bypass highways are certainly necessary for major cities like Milwaukee, but this initiative is just plain wasteful.

Tour de Waste

There are 18 different state projects that include bicycle and pedestrian accommodations, bike lanes, or multi-use trails. These facilities are certainly desirable, but cyclists and walkers don’t pay the taxes and fees that drivers do to maintain our state’s roads. Is this a fair use of mostly motorist money?

According to the Wisconsin Bicycle Transportation Plan 2020, accommodations for bicyclers can be a costly addition to normal road construction. Paved shoulders for bicycle lanes on state highways cost $20,000 to $33,000 per mile. Wide curb lanes on arterial streets in cities and towns cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 per mile. Bicycle accommodations on bridges cost $240 to $300 per foot, and multi-use trail costs can range from $10,000 per mile for basic surfacing to $200,000 per mile if amenities like streetlights and landscaping are included.

Thankfully, Walker’s budget proposal would repeal a law that calls for bicycle and pedestrian facilities at all highway construction projects. Not all roads need bike lanes and sidewalks, and repealing this requirement would allow the DOT to focus more on the actual roads being built.

The proposed WIS 100 project in West Allis is a prime example of bike lanes being planned where they should not be. WIS 100 is a highly trafficked six-lane highway through busy commercial areas in the suburbs west of Milwaukee. Yet plans to install bike lanes on this crowded street will be discussed in the coming months.

The West Allis portion of this proposed project would encompass a 4.8-mile stretch. Based on the DOT’s Bicycle Plan 2020, the cost to create paved shoulders with bicycle lanes on WIS 100 could range from $90,000 to $158,000 and between $72,000 and $240,000 if they went the wide curb lane route.

West Allis Mayor Dan Devine has already expressed concern about the proposed bike lanes, saying that he cannot envision cars and cyclists “co-existing” on that road. Devine is also worried that many businesses that line WIS 100 would have to give up too much of their land.

Lets hope project planners consider bicycle safety and are taxpayer conscious before agreeing to bike lanes for WIS 100.

Community Sensitive Pork…I Mean, Solutions

The governor’s budget would also stop the use of state money for “community sensitive solutions” (CSS) at transportation projects. While current law says that no more than 1.5 percent of total project costs can be used for such purposes, that can amount to millions if total project costs are in the hundreds of millions.

For example, the I-94 North/South Freeway Project, which is using CSS to install decorative fencing, signs, landscaping and wall designs, has a total cost of $1.65 billion. That means that CSS projects could be nearly $28 million in extra spending. The same could be said for the Zoo Interchange project in Southeast Wisconsin, which is also using CSS and has a price tag of $1.7 billion. Together, CSS could be responsible for nearly $60 million in additional costs for these two high-profile Southeast Megaprojects, just to make things a little more aesthetically pleasing.

Community sensitive solutions are also being used to install park benches, ornamental fences and columns and bicycle racks in Superior. This $20 million project only covers 1.4 miles on US-2/Belknap Street near UW-Superior. The DOT web page for this project indicates that the price could be driven higher based on final “city streetscape choices.”

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The $175 million Verona Road (US-18/151) Project in Fitchburg, just outside of Madison, will also feature CSS installments. The project will include a “mosaic” design with fancy columns and landscaping. Based on the 1.5 percent of project costs limit for CSS, there could be $2.6 million in additional beautification costs for Verona Road.

Building and maintaining our roads and bridges is an important function of government and a wise investment for a healthy economy. Nobody is arguing this point. Transportation spending is not immune to waste and pork, however. This fact should prompt state lawmakers to carefully analyze DOT’s priorities and their specific spending decisions. Before breaking out the state’s credit card or simply forcing taxpayers to hand over more of hard-earned money we need a genuine conversation about the state’s true transportation needs.