The highest-ranking Wisconsin Senate Democrat says she is skeptical of using toll roads as the solution to the state’s road-funding woes.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) has consistently advocated for road investments by the state, which has turned to borrowing and project delays in recent years to make up for stagnant gas tax revenue.
For some of the Republicans who control state government but are reluctant to raise gas taxes, tolling has represented one possibility for additional revenue for roads.
To pass, tolling likely would need support from minority Democrats such as Shilling. That's because some conservative lawmakers may be unwilling to raise any new state revenues for highways and bridges since they say that could take the pressure off state officials to cut costs.
In a year-end interview this week, Shilling said some other Democrats might be willing to accept toll roads, but she was reluctant to do so.
“I have not been a fan of tolling,” said Shilling, adding that she was still willing to discuss road-funding options with Republicans. “As Senate Democrats, we have an open ear on what needs to be done.”
Tolling could draw more attention in the coming weeks as Gov. Scott Walker’s Department of Transportation releases a Jan. 1 report that explores ways to close the state’s long-term funding challenges. At an Assembly hearing this week, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said that report would include a look at tolling.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has repeatedly pointed to tolling as one possible solution for the state, at least in the long term.
Electronic passes make toll roads more convenient and cost-effective today than they were a generation ago, advocates for the practice say. But tolling would require federal approval and take time to implement.
For his part, Walker has said less about tolling but has been adamant that he won’t raise gas taxes or vehicle fees unless an equivalent cut is made in other taxes. Conservative Republican senators such as Duey Stroebel of Cedarburg and Chris Kapenga of Delafield have strongly agreed, making it unlikely that any gas tax increase could pass the Senate without being offset with other tax cuts.
The Walker administration is recommending delays of several projects and $500 million in borrowing to close a nearly $1 billion shortfall in the transportation fund over the next two years.
Gottlieb told lawmakers Dec. 6 that the share of Wisconsin highways in poor condition is on track to double over a decade, debt payments are set to rise for the next several years and state costs are poised to outpace new money for road and highway projects.
At a separate event this week, Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow, a former GOP state senator, said he didn’t believe the state’s system was sustainable.
Shilling agreed, saying the recent Assembly transportation hearing made clear the need to pay for road and bridge work in the state. The Democratic senator represents a district that sits along the Mississippi River and the state’s border with Minnesota, and includes the headquarters of regional convenience store chain Kwik Trip Inc.
“A good strong transportation network is vital for tourism and commerce in this state,” Shilling said.