Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told the Wisconsin State Journal last week that the state is considering hiking the gas tax and registration fees to make up for a projected budget shortfall that could be as high as $680 million in the next budget and $15.3 billion in 10 years. Plus, the National Highway Trust Fund is set to dry up later this year, potentially worsening the problem.
The projections create a tricky campaign issue for Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic opponent Mary Burke, a former state Commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle Corp. executive. They'll have to walk the line between calling for low taxes and finding much-needed revenue through higher fees, taxes and, potentially, tolls on interstate highways.
Walker told reporters last year he was interested in creating a carpool toll lane, but ruled out full-fledged toll roads. Campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said Walker is committed to protecting the state's transportation system but gave no specifics on generating new revenue other than to say Walker charged Gottlieb with the task.
"Governor Walker has strengthened Wisconsin's transportation network over the last four years through responsible budgeting and by increasing our investments to the state's roads, bridges, and railways," Marre said in an email.
Meanwhile, Burke has been careful not to outright call for toll roads, and instead said the state should look for efficiencies before new sources of revenue.
"We have to make sure that we're living within the means of taxpayers, and I do not, I do not endorse increases in taxes," Burke said after a recent campaign stop in Madison. "And my first option is really living within the revenue streams that we have."
Burke said after looking for areas to cut, she would look for new revenue - "certainly toll roads is one of those."
Gottlieb told the newspaper that drivers shouldn't expect toll roads on interstate highways any time soon, and that the state is considering tying registration to a mileage-based system.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates a baseline shortfall - which doesn't include things like keeping major highway construction projects on deadline - is around $295 million.
The state's 32.9-cent gas tax and fees are seventh-highest in the nation, according to a database from the Federation of Tax Administrators.
But Wisconsin stopped tying its gas tax to inflation in 2006. Paired with more fuel-efficient cars, it has negatively impacted the transportation budget. Department of Revenue data shows the state collected $974 million in 2006 from the gas tax; it was $967 million in 2013.
The portion of the department's budget that goes to paying debt is expected to more than double in a decade, according to the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission.