Gottleib: New transpo chief sees aging infrastructure in need of repair and expansion
By Brian Clark
Mark Gottlieb, the new chief of the Department of Transportation, says there won’t be a gas tax hike. And while toll lanes may be in Wisconsin’s future, he’s not ready to support any toll roads. Not just yet.
“There are a lot of options out there. Going into the future, we are going to look at how we build a sustainable and adequate financing system for transportation,” Gottlieb noted in a new WisBusiness.com interview.
“Governor Walker has said he is open to what are commonly called ‘HOT lanes’ or high occupancy (toll) lanes where you have a market-based approach to relieving congestion,” he said
“Beyond that, the administration has not expressed support for tolling right now,” he hedged. “Those are decisions that will be looked at in the future and made by the Legislature and the governor.”
WisBusiness audioMinnesota has had HOT lanes for five years. In the Twin Cities, car-poolers can use them for free, while solo drivers must pay a toll based on the time of day. Fees range from 50 cents to $8 and motorists are billed through transponders in their vehicles, similar to Illinois’ I-PASS system.
Proponents say the Minnesota program is popular with users because traffic in express lanes usually travels at 50 mph or faster nearly all the time. Other lanes, however, often bog down during heavy commute times.
Gottlieb, who served in the Assembly for seven years and is formerly mayor of Port Washington, said his first priority as head of the DOT is to protect the transportation fund.
“In the past, we’ve had raids and transfers out of the transportation fund to backfill shortages in the general fund,” he said.
“I think that before you start to look at new resources of revenue for transportation, people want to have an assurance that the money they are paying as a user fee to use the transportation system -- whether it is a vehicle registration fee or a gas tax -- will stay in transportation and be used to build and maintain our transportation system.
“We need to make it clear that we won’t be pouring money into a leaky bucket. Fortunately, the governor has made a commitment going forward as he puts his future budgets together that he’s not going to be raiding the transportation fund and that he will keep transportation dollars in the transportation fund.”
But Gottlieb said he is well aware that Wisconsin has a “fairly stagnant source of revenues in the transportation fund. We get almost 90 percent of the money that comes into the fund from motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. In the past, the motor fuel tax was a very good proxy for how many miles people drove and it was sort of a true user fee.”
Now, with more fuel efficient cars and others that run on batteries, that system is becoming deficient, he said.
“Motor fuel taxes as a true user fee system are starting to break down a little bit,” he said.
Gottlieb, a civil engineer, said the Badger State has an aging infrastructure in need of repair and expansion.
“And we all know that good transportation is important to meeting our objectives of creating jobs and moving the economy forward,” he said.
Gottlieb said the top project on the governor’s transportation priority list is upgrading Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange, which is used by 350,000 motorists a day. By starting on the project in 2013 and delaying separate work on I-94 to the Illinois border, Walker has said the state would save $600 million (26 percent) on the Zoo Interchange .
“That interchange is the busiest in the state, and it’s close to 50 years old,” Gottlieb said. “It had structural problems we had to repair last year. We also have to finish I-94 from Milwaukee to the state line.”
Other priorities, he said, include widening I-39/90 between the Illinois border and Madison and upgrading Highways 10 and 441 in the Fox Valley.
“We have needs in the southeast area of the state in the freeway system, and we have these other projects that we have to start moving on,” he said. “Then we have system preservation and rehabilitation needs throughout the entire state.”
He said Wisconsin spent $1 billion on transportation construction projects last year and would spend the same this year.
Though high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison was scrapped by Walker, Gottlieb said work on the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago will go forward and could become a candidate for high-speed upgrades.
Gottlieb said the state has returned all but $30 million of the $810 million it received from the federal government for the Milwaukee-to-Madison line and is talks about refunding the remainder.
The transportation secretary said the state will continue to send highway funds to local communities, in spite of a gaping $3.6 billion budget deficit.
He said he expects Walker's upcoming budget to touch on transportation funding.
“I don’t want to speculate on specifics, but suffice to say there will continue to be a program that will involve the state taking some of our transportation fund revenues and funneling them back to counties and local governments so that they can maintain their systems.
“But the levels at which it will exist, I will leave that to the governor as he puts together his budget.”
Looking down the road, Gottlieb said his time in the Legislature will help him in his new job.
“Having personal relationships in the Legislature is always a good thing,” he said. “People who know me on both sides of the aisle know that they can pick up the phone and call me and discuss issues from their district or general transportation issues.
“Obviously, having served in the Legislature, I have an understanding of the struggles that they face every day in terms of balancing the needs of their constituents, the needs of the rest of the state and the realities of state government right now.
“That experience is valuable and I’d say the same about working as a local official and also being an engineer. All three are valuable for me in trying to do this job the best way I can.”