Thursday, January 12, 2017

Tolls are the wrong way to fund transportation budget

The gas tax needs to be considered

Nobody likes paying taxes. When you get your pay stub, and the amount of taxes withheld is looked at, there is a small part of you that understands the necessity of being taxed at the rate that you are. And when you pay your property taxes, you do so understanding that the money you pay goes to funding your community’s services and projects.

But paying taxes hurts nonetheless, and it’s understandable that people do so begrudgingly.

There are probably fewer things that people hate about government than paying taxes (including seeing tax dollars misspent). Yet paying for toll roads would probably be one of them, a proposal that some Republicans in Wisconsin are leaning toward in order to raise revenues for a dwindling transportation fund.

If you’re like me, you probably abhor this idea. Paying to drive on a publicly funded roadway is annoying. The roads should belong to everyone, and there shouldn’t be a “user fee” just to access them.

The benefits of roadways are many, and they even extend to people who don’t use them. A person living in Sauk County, who may never travel to Milwaukee, still benefits from a Milwaukee-to-Madison roadway that allows consumer goods to make the trip from Chicago to their community. An extensive network of toll roads across the state could feasibly drive up prices of these goods, a negative impact that several communities across Wisconsin could see themselves facing.

Another impact that toll roads could have is that trucks hauling consumer goods could instead try and use “free” roads that are ordinarily less-traveled in order to avoid tolls. What happens as a result? The back roads are used more, and thus require more maintenance, and we’re back to square one as far as funding goes. Furthermore, one study concludes that diversion could result in more accidents on those back roads as well, as many of those roads are two-lane highways that aren’t equipped for such types of traffic.

What’s the alternative to funding road maintenance? Instead of using tolls, we can raise the gas tax. About a decade ago, the Wisconsin legislature decided to stop indexing the gas tax to cost of living. George Mitchell at Right Wisconsin – a conservative website, mind you – explains why this has been a problem:
The result has been a flat tax that, in real terms, is down about 17% since 2006. Considering that road repair and construction costs have grown faster than general inflation, the real decline actually is even greater than 17%.
In other words, the gas tax hasn’t kept up with rising costs of maintaining our roadways. While maintenance costs rise, the revenue for funding some of those costs hasn’t risen.

Many conservative lawmakers are open to the idea of raising the gas tax – but Gov. Scott Walker, perhaps still hoping for a future in national politics, is refusing to budge on the issue unless the legislature can find a way to cut taxes elsewhere in the already tight state budget.

It is irresponsible for the governor to make such a demand. Even former Gov. Jim Doyle saw that it was a mistake to make a similar pledge not to raise the gas tax during his second term in office. Walker should be open to whatever remedies are out there to fix this crisis, and his failure to be even remotely flexible on this issue shows he’s an ideologue when it comes to managing the state’s revenues.

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