Many states have toll roads, but Wisconsin is one of the states that have not yet embraced this notion. However, in the near future this could change. Recently, some members of the Wisconsin Legislature have signaled their support for the creation of toll roads. Ultimately, creating toll roads would be a bad policy prescription for Wisconsin residents.
In the past, Wisconsin has rejected the idea of toll roads. Yet, legislators from both political parties have signaled bipartisan support for toll roads. As Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said, “It seems like a very efficient way — everybody pays their fair share — whether you’re an electric car, a gas operated car, a truck or a bus — it seems to me that the only way we’re going to have efficient, strong infrastructure in Wisconsin is if the users pay for it.”
Republicans have embraced the creation of toll roads too, with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, saying, “We know that the transportation fund over the long haul has a serious deficit. … Both political parties say it’s time for tolls. I would much rather have people pay for a system that they use.” The seeming objective reason for the creation of toll roads is that “the cost of rural interstate highway reconstruction projects over the next 30 years is estimated at $4.8 billion and $8.7 billion for urban interstate systems,” according to a study done in 2011.
The question remains, though: Is creating toll roads really necessary to fund Wisconsin’s interstate highway systems for the next 30 years? Using the figures from the 2011 study, it would cost Wisconsin citizens approximately $160 millon to $290 million annually for the next three decades to adequately fund the state’s interstate highway systems. It is true that this is not an insubstantial amount of money, but context is important. For instance, Gov. Scott Walker has recently promoted a $504 million dollar property and income tax cut plan that would be implemented over the next 18 months.
Significantly, the purported reason for this tax cut is that Wisconsin currently has a budget surplus. This is strictly true, but extremely misleading. In reality, Wisconsin has a structural deficit. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “Walker said his plan would add perhaps $100 million to the $725 million shortfall projected for the next two-year budget by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.”
Why does there seem to be extra government funding (when in reality there isn’t) for property and income tax cuts, but not enough to keep public roads free? One reason should be evident by now: The Wisconsin Republican Party (like many Tea Party-oriented congressmen) has pledged to privatize government services where it can, and at the same time ensure that supply-side economic policies are enacted, regardless of whether the government has the funds to do so. The privatization of public roads by converting them into toll roads is just another example of this phenomenon.
Although funding Wisconsin’s public roads for the next 30 years won’t exactly be easy, it would certainly be easier if the government were actually using government funds to invest in vital infrastructure instead of giving out those funds in the form of tax breaks. Nonetheless, the important point is that it is entirely plausible that Wisconsin’s public roads can be funded without resorting to their conversion into toll roads.
The creation of toll roads in Wisconsin would have negative impacts on Wisconsin residents. If toll roads were created on some, but not all Wisconsin highways, traffic might be diverted onto those highways that are not toll roads. This could have the unintended and negative consequence of traffic congestion. Additionally, while state legislators argue that the funds from future toll roads would only be used to fund state highways, many other states made this same claim to their citizens but have used revenues from toll roads to fund other programs.
The whole point of public roads is just that, they are public. Roads are a public good because if they are subject to a market mechanism, market failure occurs. The idea to create toll roads is just another example of Republicans trying to privatize public goods, caricatured by Ron Swanson’s quote, “My dream is to have the park system privatized and run entirely for profit by corporations, like Chuck E. Cheese. They have an impeccable business model.”
Aaron Loudenslager (loudenslager