The state’s transportation secretary raised concerns among Republicans Wednesday by emphasizing the need for roughly $1 billion in borrowing for road construction projects.
At a Joint Finance Committee hearing, Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb emphasized the importance of borrowing for the state’s highway projects. Some Republicans, however, raised concerns about the resulting debt.
If the Legislature lowered borrowing, Gottlieb said, the state’s highway system would “continue to deteriorate.”
“It should be clearly understood that if highway program bonding or general fund transfers are reduced without a corresponding increase in other transportation revenues, the result will be delays in current and future projects in all areas of the highway program,” he said.
Gottlieb said about 40 percent of the bonding will be repaid with transportation revenues from registration and fees in the future. General bonding, which the state would need to pay later from its general fund, will only be used for major programs, he said.
Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, asked Gottlieb to cut about $200 million in borrowing or spending, which Gottlieb said he would look at.
“Either we’re going to find some things to borrow less or spend less there or you can help us do it,” Knudson said. “Would you be willing to find your lowest priority?”
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, said spending so much money on transportation takes money away from areas like education.
The state also needs to find a better long-term solution for transportation funding, he said.
“You guys had this committee that looked at how we make transportation sustainable, and [Gov. Scott Walker’s] budget didn’t really take any of that advice at all,” Olsen said.
The transportation committee, created in the past legislative session, recommended earlier this year lawmakers spend more on transportation but also increase revenues, partly through an increase in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
Republican leaders quickly rejected those revenue recommendations, and Walker touted there would be no increase in user fees in his budget address last month.
At the hearing, Republicans also raised concerns over the 180 additional engineer positions at DOT, but Gottlieb said these are necessary so the agency would reduce the amount of contractors. Although contractors would still make up much of DOT’s budget, Gottlieb said the agency would save money by switching some tasks to DOT.
Walker’s budget would also begin funding local transit systems with the state’s general purpose revenue, which includes funding for a number of other departments. This would move transit funding away from the state’s transportation fund.
Gottlieb said along with economic growth, such a move would put transit funding in a growing revenue source.
But Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said she was concerned transit would be “competing” with other agencies over which agency gets how much funding. Although DOT would still manage transit, Schilling said DOT’s funds and focus would shift to highways with this budget.
“It certainly seems like mass transit fits the definition of transportation,” Schilling said. “And if we’re going to be taking mass transit [out of the transportation fund], then maybe we should be renaming the department the Department of Highways.”