The Badger Tollway? Not so fast, says commission official
MADISON A panel looking at ways to pay for the state's highways is leaning against the idea of imposing highway tolls.
One of the state's top political power brokers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, has indicated he'd like toll roads to solve the state's transportation-funding problem. But a commission that is studying the issue has found the issue is not as simple as it might seem.
Federal support for highways is on the decline, while the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees, which have paid most of the state's highway bills, are stagnating, according to a paper issued by the state's Transportation Policy and Funding Commission.
More fuel-efficient cars have led to less gas-tax revenue.
Meanwhile, one estimate is that the state will need an extra $6 billion for transportation over the next decade.
The governor and Legislature created the commission to study the issue. The commission is schedule to release its final report Jan. 23. A draft of the report includes a "finding" that suggests tollways are not practical for Wisconsin, at least not now, said Beth Nachreiner, the commission's staff director.
Nachreiner spoke to The Gazette on Tuesday. She said the finding is not as strong as a recommendation. She stressed that she was speaking only about a draft of the final report, which could be changed before it is finalized.
The commission's report would be considered as lawmakers make the final decision about how to fund transportation projects.
Nachreiner said a major hang-up is a federal requirement that any state that charges tolls has to provide the same number of free roads as before tolling.
The state could impose tolls on any new or expanded highways, Nachreiner said. For example, with the planned widening of Interstate 90/39 from the Illinois state line to Madison, tolls could be imposed on the new lanes, but the existing four lanes would have to remain a freeway.
The question is whether tolls on the new lanes could pay for the tolling infrastructure while the other lanes remain free, Nachreiner said.
Open-road tolling, the kind of system used in the Illinois Tollway, is costly, Nachreiner said, and it does not appear Wisconsin has enough traffic to generate enough revenue to pay off the cost.
The commission likely will encourage the state's congressional delegation to push for a change in federal law, Nachreiner said.
While tolls might not be the answer in the near term, there's another way lawmakers could impose a fee on drivers. State drivers could be assessed a fee based on the number of miles they drive.
The first 3,000 miles each year would be exempt, to account for miles someone might drive out of state, Nachreiner said, but a fee would be imposed for subsequent miles.
The fee-for-miles system would not capture money from out-of-state tourists, as a tollway would, Nachreiner acknowledged, unless a nationwide system were imposed, and that does not appear to be in the cards.
Meanwhile, costs of maintaining the state's highways will not go away. It's estimated that the entire 743-mile Interstate system in Wisconsin will need to be rebuilt over the next 30 years.