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Republicans are dragging Wisconsin deeper into the highway money pit

An illustration shows cars traveling multiple criss-crossing roads, all emitting black clouds of exhaust. Illustration by Rachal Duggan.
An illustration shows cars traveling multiple criss-crossing roads, all emitting black clouds of exhaust. Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

The powerful Joint Finance Committee won’t spare even a pittance of federal funds for alternative transportation.

For a statewide $283 million transit and infrastructure package, $4.3 million is not a lot of money. 

But Republican legislators on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), the Wisconsin Legislature’s committee in charge of overseeing the state budget, decided on April 27 to limit the use of those funds. Reversing an element of the state Department of Transportation’s spending plan, the JFC has barred the state from using these funds for bike or walking trails, public transit, basically anything other than highway right-of-way or signaling improvements, setting back initiatives to make communities more walkable, bikeable, and public transit-friendly.

The $283 million was from the federal Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, otherwise known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The $4.3 million was under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), which allocates funding for states to improve air quality, either by investing in infrastructure to reduce congestion (reducing the amount of exhaust personal vehicles emit while on the road) or to improve alternative forms of transit, such as bikes, walking, or public transit. 

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Harald Kliems, board president at Madison Bikes, a group that advocates for biking infrastructure, says JFC’s decision was probably the latest in a long chain of decisions that prioritizes personal vehicle infrastructure over alternatives. Anytime federal transit funds come to the state, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation can divert up to 50% of CMAQ and Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) funding into the general fund for road projects instead of alternative transit projects.

“[WisDOT] has a long, long history of having done that. So say the feds give you $10 million, then funnels $5 million of that into the general fund, rather than spending it with the specific purpose of TAP funding or CMAQ funding to benefit transportation alternatives,” Kliems says. “[The $4.3 million] was only a small piece of the funding coming to the state to begin with.”

Which is all the more frustrating because, while JFC Co-Chair Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said the committee’s goal is ” to make sure when this money is here we make the best investments for taxpayers,” alternative transit provides exponential benefits with very little funding.

“That goes a long ways. Walking and biking trails are not very expensive and a million dollars can get you a lot more than it can with, say, a road project,” says Gregg May, transportation policy director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “And $4 million goes a long way in the walking/biking community for these kinds of infrastructure projects. So it’s minor, but it’s also not minor.”

In addition to the multiplier benefits of creating walkable, bikeable, public transit-friendly communities—better air quality, more exercise and mental health benefits, as well as mitigating that little issue called climate change—investing in alternative transit makes a lot of fiscal sense. 

For example, Mays pointed out that the high-speed train from Madison to Milwaukee, which was shut down when former Gov. Scott Walker was elected a decade ago, would have cost $823 million, of which the federal government provided $810 million. The cost to expand 3.5 miles of I-94 in Milwaukee to six or eight lanes? $1.2 billion. 

“There’s a rule in transportation policy called induced demand, which is that if you expand a roadway, it will reduce congestion for a short period of time, but then more cars will end up using it and you’ll be in the same place in a matter of years,” Mays says. “If we really do want to be serious about reducing congestion, people on buses and people walking and biking and getting out of their cars is one of the few tools we do have to reduce congestion rather than expanding highways.”

WisDOT, Milwaukee County, and the City of Milwaukee signaled recently that they might be ready for an existential reexamination such investments, announcing a study that could drastically transform Milwaukee’s six-lane Stadium Freeway and create more room for alternative transportation and housing, not to mention easing the role highway construction has historically played in enforcing segregation. 

Reliance on personal vehicles has not only short-term but also long-term costs that accumulate over time. 

“There’s been a history of funding expansion of highways, but then not thinking about the long-term maintenance costs. Twenty years later, you’ve got to repave them and that’s really expensive,” Kliems said. “If we are able to create urban density where people affordably can live in places where they can get around by bike, where they can get around by bus, where they can walk to the grocery store, where they can maybe bike to their place of work, that really does have long-term financial benefits for a city.” 

So investing in alternative transit can have rippling benefits, especially considering the limitations the legislature has put on Wisconsin municipalities’ ability to collect revenue for expensive infrastructure projects.

“So making sure that you don’t have to spend all of that revenue on your roads, your crumbling roads, is really important,” Kliems said.

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Mays is concerned that the decision by Joint Finance, in addition to being impractical, could also be setting a bad precedent. 

“If we’re going to be dictating that CMAQ funding be used for road projects, it’s just taking away one of the last funding streams,” May says. “I’m concerned that moving forward in the future, if that continues, if that sets a precedent, in the future years when it comes to the budget it will just continue to constrain already the limited resources we have for walking, biking, and transit.”

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