Sen. Jerry Petrowski, Senate Transportation Chair, and Rep. Keith Ripp, Assembly Transportation Chair, sat down with The Wheeler Report to talk about the successes, the challenges, and the future of transportation in Wisconsin.
When asked about the accomplishments of the transportation committee over the past sessions, both legislators highlighted the work to make changes to the implements of husbandry legislation. Petrowski emphasized that it was a compromise and brought everyone involved to a reasonable conclusion. In addition, Petrowski said they knew the bill will require maintenance each session as technology and farm equipment changes. They highlighted the manure piping bill, which allows farmers to pump their manure through pipes across land. Petrowski said it helps with infrastructure because it takes some heavy tankers off the roads. Ripp said a lot of farms use them, and right now they are limited by the terrain and the equipment and technology that control them. In addition, both legislators said they were happy to have passed the cell phone restrictions in construction zones bill. They talked about the numbers of tragedies and injuries that have taken place. Petrowski said, “I think it’s an education opportunity. It helps the public understand the importance of being alert in a construction zone.”
When asked about the biggest challenge for transportation, both legislators quickly answered ‘funding.’ Rep. Ripp said one of the challenges has been building the fund back up after Gov. Doyle took money from the fund for the budget. Ripp said, “I think it was the perfect storm. The fund needed to be filled. The cost of construction materials increased, and revenue increases slowed.” Petrowski said, “Concrete, steel and right of way costs all increased dramatically. The revenue coming into the transportation fund was increasing over time, but it wasn’t increasing fast enough to make up for the increases in building costs.” Petrowski also highlighted that fuel efficiency increases in vehicles is having an impact on the rate at which revenue increases. Petrowski and Ripp both said that safety is always an issue for transportation, but everything is tied to funding and maintaining roads. Ripp said, “When I was a local town supervisor, public safety was the number one thing on town road. It’s no different here at the state level. Public safety is at the top of the list.”
While addressing safety, the legislators were asked about the use of roundabouts. Petrowski said, “A roundabout is not a bad thing provided they are designed to handle the traffic that is going through them. Some of the early ones did not have a big enough radius. Some of the later ones, which were designed properly, could handle a large tractor trailer. They have now adapted the curbs in the roundabouts that are slanted so they can handle the trucks.” Ripp said roundabouts have reduced the amount of ‘direct-hits’ accidents. Ripp explained by saying, “I think we see more accidents but less death.” Ripp also highlighted a bill that addressed right-of-way in roundabouts, saying it was an important bill to help drivers. Ripp said, “I think as DOT standardizes the roundabouts, and the public gets used to them, they are serving a purpose. Even if they aren’t popular.”
When asked specifically What will be the future of funding in transportation? Petrowski said, “I think we have to define what all the options are. The final answer will have to come as a compromise between all the members of both houses and the Governor’s office. There are some states that have added more GPR to their transportation funds. We have done that through the years, but I think a lot of it was focused on putting back into the transportation fund what was taken out along the way. One issue is tolling. Some people it makes nervous. I don’t see it happening all over the state, but near the borders I think it makes some sense.”
There are some misunderstandings on how tolling may work in Wisconsin, and the legislators were asked to clarify how a toll could work in Wisconsin. Both legislators emphasized that currently Wisconsin cannot toll because the federal government has not given Wisconsin permission. The legislators said how the tolls would work and what could be done would depend on the language in the federal waiver. The legislators also said the DOT is currently looking into what the costs would be to establish toll booths or monitoring locations as well as where tolling could be used. Petrowski said, “The first place that would come to mind would be I-90 and I-94 going into Illinois, and I-94 going into Minnesota, but there may be other places they could work.” Ripp said, “Along with tolling we need to be sensitive to commerce in the state.” When asked if the State should be considering revenue increases, spending decreases, bonding and/or cost efficiencies, Ripp said, “All of the above. There is an audit being done right now and we’ll see what that shows us. We realize that tourism and the ag industry are very important to our state, so we need to find a way to maintain that.” Petrowski said, “Bonding is not a long-term solution. We want to make sure we enhance our economy whether it be ag, forestry, or manufacturing. The ability to move goods and services is important when you’re looking to get businesses to come here. Transportation needs to be looked at as an investment.”
Transportation is more than just roads. Wisconsin transportation also includes, ferries, harbors, and rail. The legislators were asked about the condition of those entities. Petrowski said, “There is always a wish list, including mass transit, again it is going to come down to how everyone feels between both houses and the governor on where there needs to be an investment and what has to change.”
The legislators were asked to what was the next key issue for transportation after funding. They said safety. Ripp said the legislators and state government need to get more aggressive in making decisions on funding and maintenance of Wisconsin infrastructure and roads.
Wisconsin implemented a 70 mph speed limit last year and the legislators were asked what they believe has been the impact. Petrowski said, “I don’t think it has had an effect. Fatalities are up slightly this year, but I haven’t seen that attributed to speed. Usually it is other issues like weather, deer, or inattentive driving.” Ripp said, “Engineering, roads and motor vehicles are safer than they used to be.”
Petrowski closed the interview by saying, “Some of it will come down to the economy for the State, and what’s available in GPR money. The last time the LFB announced something we still had a surplus but it was less than originally thought. I think the economy has picked up some since then; unemployment has gone down.”