It takes only a few minutes of driving on Wisconsin streets in winter (or even in summer) to reach the same conclusion about local roads and bridges that national experts Matthew Kahn (University of California, Los Angeles) and David Levinson (University of Minnesota) reached in 2011 about the dismal condition of the country’s state highways: “The roads and bridges that make up our nation’s highway infrastructure are in disrepair as a result of insufficient maintenance — a maintenance deficit that increases travel times, damages vehicles and can lead to accidents that cause injuries or even fatalities.”
He further correctly diagnoses the problem:
As we drivers make our way through city streets, along local roads and down big highways, we still use up a huge volume of gas. When we refuel at the pump, our gas purchases give government — the state Department of Transportation and the federal DOT — hundreds of millions of tax dollars. License fees add additional large sums to government’s coffers.
The problem is that our state DOT, the Wisconsin Legislature and Wisconsin governors have refused to return to local government a large share of the tax revenue that is generated by driving on local streets in the first place.
Cities, villages, towns and counties cannot fix local roads with dollars that the state DOT refuses to send them. Nor can local governments afford to underfund public safety (police, fire, etc.) or other vital local services in order to literally fill in the potholes. Nor do local taxpayers and governments want — and state law makes it tough for them anyway — to raise property taxes to fill in the potholes.
So the potholes go unfilled, or get patched too late or imperfectly, year after year after year.
Where, then, do the gas tax dollars that local drivers pay end up instead? The sad answer is that, regardless of which party controls power in Madison, the state DOT sucks up most of the huge sum of gas tax revenue already collected from local drivers, and siphons it off to DOT’s wasteful pet projects.
Rather than fix local roads with tax revenues generated by local driving, DOT diverts hundreds of millions of gas tax dollars to pay to widen interstate highways that already are wide enough. And DOT diverts hundreds of millions more to finance new roads that are simply not needed.