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Coalition pushes for more spending on transportation
MADISON - Wisconsin's highways are aging, congestion is worsening in Milwaukee, Madison and other urban areas and there is demand for public transit, even in rural areas, that isn't being met.

Meanwhile, the state faces a projected $680 million deficit in its transportation budget, meaning there won't be enough money to pay for existing needs and projects, let alone any new ones.

With that deficit expected to grow to more than $15 billion over the next 10 years, road builders, economic development leaders, local government officials and others with an interest in Wisconsin's transportation priorities have banded together. They have been meeting with state office holders and candidates in the weeks before the Nov. 4 election to make sure policymakers understand the severity of the issue and don't rule out any possible solution, including raising taxes.

"This is a critical problem," said Kyle Christianson, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Counties Association, one of about 20 groups in the Transportation Investment Coalition. "A lot of the Band-Aids are gone. We need a long-term solution."

John Gard, a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly and lobbyist for the Operating Engineers union, stressed that the coalition isn't advocating for any particular plan or solution.

"We want to have a conversation about the reality of the situation and that nothing should be off the table," he said.

This will be one of the biggest issues in the next budget, said Gary Goyke, lobbyist for urban and rural mass transit operators, including taxi cabs, buses and transportation for the elderly and disabled.

So far Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke aren't talking in detail about what they would do.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor would increase funding for transportation, but that would be offset by tax cuts elsewhere. He did not say where the money for increasing the transportation fund would come from.

Burke said in a prepared statement that she would set priorities for transportation spending based on public safety and economic development needs and consider all options for making up the shortfall based on what is best for taxpayers.

There is a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot that would prohibit raids on the state transportation fund. The measure made it to the ballot after $1.3 billion was taken out of the fund by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature, sometimes with Republican support, to pay for schools.

But that amendment will do nothing to address the transportation fund shortfall.

State agencies are required to submit their two-year spending plans for the next budget on Monday. However, the Department of Transportation has traditionally turned in its budget later in the year "so we do not have any information to share at this time," said department spokeswoman Peg Schmitt.

DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb has been soliciting opinions from around the state and discussing a task force report that laid out the problems and possible solutions.

That 2013 report recommended increasing a variety of Wisconsin's driving-related taxes and fees to pay for $4.8 billion in projects over the next decade.

The recommendations went nowhere in the Legislature, where Republicans in control refused to consider raising gas taxes or any other taxes or fees.

Gottlieb said this summer that the state was considering increasing the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1997, and changing registration fees from a flat amount to something tied to miles drives.

The task force recommended both in its report. Other task force ideas ignored by Walker and the Legislature included increasing the driver's license fee and eliminating the sales tax exemption on the trade-in value of vehicles.

Advocates this week called on DOT to divert nearly $3 billion planned to be spent on four highway expansion projects and instead use it for state and local road repairs, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and mass transit improvements.

"Wisconsin's transportation spending priorities are backwards," said Bruce Speight, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group Foundation.