Answer “No” to Transportation Amendment on November 4th Ballot

Interstate

Wisconsin law presently requires that specific revenue streams, such as gasoline and diesel fuel taxes and license fees collected from motor vehicle owners, be deposited into the transportation fund; however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has recognized that the Wisconsin Legislature may, at times, have greater needs other than transportation, and it is therefore authorized to transfer certain amounts from the Transportation Fund to non-transportation state needs, such as education, health care, and shared revenue.

However, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the highway building industry – which includes such contracting entities as the Wisconsin road and bridge builders (the Transportation Builders Association), sand and gravel suppliers, cement and asphalt production companies, trucking firms, and other businesses financially tied to transportation in Wisconsin, have been very vocal in their criticisms of the previous administration’s use of some transportation generated money for purposes not financially benefiting Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure.

So a Transportation Amendment referendum question was approved for placement on the November 4th ballot which, if the majority of Wisconsin voters answer “yes” (to Question 1 on the ballot), would so amend Wisconsin’s Constitution to mandate that all money generated by transportation taxes in Wisconsin after December 31, 2010 be deposited into the state’s Transportation Fund, and furthermore that no such money be lapsed, further transferred, or used for any program that is not directly administered by the department of transportation, in furtherance of the department’s responsibility for the planning, promotion, and protection of all transportation systems in the state. In short, all transportation collected money could only be used for transportation purposes if the majority of people voting on November 4th answer “yes” to Referendum Question #1.

If the majority of Wisconsin voters on November 4th answer “no” to amending Wisconsin’s Constitution regarding the Transportation Amendment, tax money from transportation in Wisconsin would still be deposited in the Transportation Fund and used for transportation; however, certain amounts approved by the Legislature for use in other state programs or the state budget other than for transportation projects would be permissible. The Wisconsin Constitution would not therefore be amended to provide for the exclusive use of motor vehicle fuel taxes and annual vehicle registration fees by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for road and bridge expansion, reconstruction, and rehabilitation programs.

Wisconsin Senator Fred Risser recommends voters answer “no” to the Transportation Fund Constitutional Amendment, saying “it serves no useful purpose to submit to the highway lobby and guarantee them a constitutionally protected fund that can never be touched even in the case of economic crisis or statewide emergency”.

Wisconsin’s highway and bridge system and its use, and other state and federal highway systems and their use, have already exceeded the level of environmental and fiscal sustainability. In addition to the billions of dollars of state and federal money that has been collected and awarded to various highway and bridge contractor from Transportation Funds, there have been very real damages inflicted on Wisconsin’s and other state’s natural landscapes, wildlife and wildlife habitat, the climate and the human population. Despite many of these costs being significantly high, they are seldom quantified and simply go unpaid. Most (loss of wildlife habitat, climate change, small particle pollution) are growing more serious over time.

The public health impacts from 60 billion motor vehicle miles being driven annually in the state are growing evermore significant and serious (from climate change, loss of green space, farmland loss, small particle air pollution). Yet we have seen no actions being undertaken or even discussed so far by the Governor Scott Walker administration, the Wisconsin Legislature, or candidate for governor Mary Burke. Action is needed to encourage less fossil fuel burning vehicular travel in the state, to mitigate for many impacts that have already occurred or are still occurring, and to prepare for a climate that will be rapidly changing.

Despite seeing motor vehicle driving in Wisconsin finally leveling off, after decades of growth, the state and federal governments are planning to continue pouring vast sums of money into the construction of new highways and the expansion of old ones. Wisconsin’s governor is leading the way, with Wisconsin the politically powerful road and bridge building industry’s support.

Today’s Wisconsin State Journal newspaper states that Governor Scott Walker, in meeting with the State Journal’s editorial board Monday, said that he is considering replacing the state’s current gasoline tax with a sales tax on gas and alternative vehicle fuel sources “to stabilize long-term transportation funding in the state”. The state currently taxes gasoline, blended gasoline, and diesel fuel for motor vehicle fuel at a flat rate of 31 cents per gallon. The present gasoline tax generates about $1 billion in revenue for the Transportation Fund. The tax on is levied on gasoline suppliers but in turn gets build into the pump price. (The state also taxes liquefied propane gas, compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas but not electricity, although The Journal reports Walker saying “that’s something that needs to be considered”.

Neither Walker nor Democratic challenger for governor Mary Burke have identified any specific plans for addressing the state’s projected $680 million shortfall in the Transportation Fund in the next biennial budget, according to the Wisconsin State Journal report written by Mathew DeFour and Mary Spicuzza and published October 14, 2014. The state will be short $15.3 billion in the Transportation Budget over the next decade according to a state transportation commission reported last year, despite there being fewer annual vehicle miles predicted to be traveled on the state highways in the coming years.

As alluded to previously (above), there is serious and significant concern regarding the continued burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from motor vehicles travelly 60 billion miles, or 600 billion miles since 2004. The reason is that these gases, in particular carbon dioxide, have already accumulated to record high levels in the atmosphere, and the added accumulation of them in the atmosphere is growing ever more dangerous. Presently, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has reached record of over 400 parts per millions in the atmosphere, which is 42% above the CO2 concentration level present in the atmosphere before the Industrial Age. We are now witnessing rising sea levels from thermal expansion of water and ice melt over lands on an unprecedented scale.

Roughly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted to the atmosphere for each gallon of gasoline burned in a motor vehicle. Even if we assume that all vehicles driven in the state achieved 2013’s record high efficiency of 24.1 miles per gallon, this amounts to roughly 2.5 billion gallons of gasoline being burned on Wisconsin’s highways each year, which translates into 50 billion pounds (25 million tons) of carbon dioxide being emitted from tailpipes each year, or 250 tons over the last decade. Since carbon dioxide has a lifetime exceeding 100 years in the atmosphere, much of this CO2 will still be in the atmosphere by the end of this century, along with CO2 and other greenhouse gases accumulations.

Not only should the state be working harder and faster on reducing it’s GHG emissions – it should not be prohibited from using transportation generated money for this purpose. In fact, there should be a moratorium on adding more capacity (lane) for additional use of motor vehicles on the state’s highway system. This would save the state $3 billion in taxpayer money that is slated for highway expansion now, including work of the I-94 south of Madison project and the addition of two more lanes of Beltline highway in the vicinity of the Verona Road/Beltline interchange in Madison.

As discussed in a previous post on this blog, high motor vehicle traffic areas also generate dangerous levels of small and ultra small particle pollution. It has been reported in numerous that people who live very close to heavy traffic and get exposed to high levels of ultra fine particle pollution have more health problems, including heart and vascular problems. Transportation Funds should be used to minimize and mitigate for these transportation related health costs.

Verona Road/Beltline Expansion: despite the majority of people speaking at a meeting held by DOT in 2003  saying they were opposed to more motor vehicle traffic in the areas of West Madison near the proposed project, DOT proceeded with it plan for the project anyway, as expected.

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About Mike Neuman

Environmentalist; Father; Senior Citizen; Husband, School Crossing Guard; Green Bay Packer Fan; Wisconsin Badger Fan; Animal Lover; Humanitarian

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