Future of Transportation in Wisconsin

by Ben N on April 27, 2019

Yesterday, I attended a conference about the future of transportation in Wisconsin. The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership hosted the event at “The Garage” space at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.

Unfortunately, the trip from my house, to the event and BACK, is just a little further than the available range per charge on my modest electric car. So, I threw my bicycle in the back, with the plan to charge my car down the street from Harley while I attended. After arriving at Potawatomi Casino to use one of their charging stations, I biked the rest of the way to Harley.

Pulling in to the event, I met the only other bicyclist there, who came in on his electric cargo bike. Seemed like a good start to the event!

Once the conference actually started, it was a series of panels. The main focus was on FUNDING state transportation. Wisconsin has NOT properly funded roads in a LONG time! One of the reasons why is that “Indexing” of the state gas tax was repealed in 2006. That means that the tax has NOT followed inflation in well over a decade. The other means of funding roads has been from vehicle registrations, which have also remained flat. (Likewise, the Federal gas tax hasn’t been raised in 25 years!)

Wisconsin has instead chosen to continuously BORROW money to pay for roads. (The politicians call it “Bonding”. But call it what it is – borrowing from the future to pay for something now.) The Department of Transportation has been so dependent on borrowing that 20% of the budget is simply to make payments on the bonds! The DOT is 5.7 BILLION dollars in debt.

DOT Deputy Secretary, Paul Hammer, gave an overview of the proposed Tony Evers budget. That would include reinstating inflation indexing of the gas tax, an 8 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, and a 27% increase in heavy truck registration fees.

Bob Poole, a proponent of tolling, liked the increases in funding, but said that it didn’t go far enough. “We need to replace the per gallon fuel tax for the long term.”
Mr. Poole gave an excellent brief presentation on the merits of modern electronic tolling and how it COULD be used to completely fund certain sections of Wisconsin roads.

The overall feeling I got during the discussion of FUNDING transportation in our state is just how poorly we HAVE funded it in the past, and how heavily we have relied on DEBT! Jerry Petrowski, State Senator (R) from the Wausau area said “We pay $800 Million….. in debt payments. Imagine what we could do if we didn’t have to pay that!”
He also spoke about a proposal to use sales tax from auto parts and related items to help fund roads. The downside is that those funds would then no longer go to the General Fund, which pays for everything from schools to healthcare. Petrowski continued “What we have to do is simple,” referring to increasing revenue for the DOT. “Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

In an upbeat section of the program, two University of Wisconsin faculty presented about their research. Jie You spoke on Mobility as a Service – new ways to get around using emerging technologies and social changes. Think Uber on steroids.
Michael Schlicting spoke on smart cities and future transportation planning. While the Foxconn development has dramatically changed, Mr. Schlicting used it as an opportunity to research Smart City design.

Next was a surprise visit by former governor and namesake of the group organizing the event – Tommy Thompson himself. He spoke brief and passionately about transportation in our state. “I’ve never seen a Republican road or a Democrat street… If there’s one issue that needs bipartisan support, it’s transportation!”

Former Governor Tommy Thompson

WI DOT Secretary, Craig Thompson, gave the lunchtime keynote. It was great to hear about transportation in this state directly from the top. Secretary Thompson reiterated the challenges of budgeting and the need for changes in how we fund. He spoke of variables in the future that we simply can NOT accurately plan for, including Electric Vehicles and Autonomous Vehicles. He also warned against the folly of debt. “Debt service is clearly NOT a sustainable solution.”

After the presentation, I was able to get a few words in edgewise with the Secretary of Transportation. I specifically asked about funding for Electric Vehicle Charging Stations and was told “Yeah, it’s in the budget.”

After lunch, a panel spoke about FREIGHT in Wisconsin. Teresa Adams is a University of Wisconsin Madison Professor of Engineering and a former Director of the National Center for Friegth and Infrastructure Research and Education. Her presentation asked how we will need to design our infrastructure for Climate Change, including how we will need to raise bridges and deal with worsening freeze/thaw cycles. She also spoke about tractor trailer aerodynamics and how semis will save energy in the future by safely drafting. Trucks will do this using LIDAR, adaptive cruise control, and other technologies already available in many passenger cars.

I’m very glad I got to attend the conference.
The overall feeling is that we have some MAJOR challenges for transportation in the State of Wisconsin. Budgeting is the single largest one, but that can be dealt with by proper political willpower and perhaps tightening our belts a bit. I also enjoyed the NON-PARTISAN feel of the event. It felt like people were there to help find solutions, rather than to find others to blame.

Transit, freight, bicycling, ports, and more were also talked about at the event, although this would be a long article if I focused on all of those as well. (Although many of those DO tie in to jobs and the economy!)
One bit that caught my notice was a presentation about “The Last Mile”. This refers to getting to and from Transit. Even in places with excellent bus and train service, riders still need to get from them to the job. I felt a bit of this myself because I couldn’t charge my electric car at Harley. Instead, I biked from where I could charge it. In many places in Wisconsin, a worker may have a 90 minute commute by a combination of bus and other transportation just to get to their job.

Have you been following what’s going on in the Wisconsin State Budget? What would you like to see happen in regards to how Plug-In Vehicles are treated by the DOT? Let us know!

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben Nelson

PS: I also got to see the LIVEWIRE electric motorcycle on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Of course, I rode a friend’s electric Harley to the release event for the LiveWire a few years back. See that HERE.

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