Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Zoo Interchange and bad spending priorities

The finger-pointing between gubernatorial candidates Scott Walker and Tom Barrett over who is to blame for the problems with the Zoo Interchange would be laughable, if it did not draw attention away from the real issue — the state’s refusal to take care of the highways it builds.

The past few governors and the state legislature never figured that out — if you build a highway, you need to take care of it. They got the first part of that equation — highway building — down pretty good, but the taking care of it part? Not so much.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has been an agency run amuck for a long time now, enabled by Governors Thompson and McCallum and Doyle and the state legislators who perennially suck up to the road builders. Got an unnecessary interchange project in Waukesha County? The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is there for you. Want to build a sometimes interchange because of a single sporting event? Just call WisDOT.

But boring ol’ maintenance? Never mind.

The facts are rather neatly and depressingly laid out in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s own Budget Trends report. From 1994 through 2009, spending on the three big highway-building programs — major highway development, state highway rehabilitation and southeastern Wisconsin highways rehabilitation — totaled $13.6 billion (transportation debt, most of which is incurred because of those programs, is a separate category). Spending on highway maintenance and operations totaled just $2.7 billion over that same period.

The top blue line is annual highway construction spending. The  pink line is annual maintenance spending. Source: Transportation Budget  Trends, 2008

The top blue line is annual highway construction spending. The pink line is annual maintenance spending. Source: Transportation Budget Trends, 2008

Yup. In a state with an aging highway system, the state powers that be decided that only one dollar should be spent on maintenance for every five dollars spent on new construction. Worse, the spending disparity grew over that time period. In 1994 maintenance spending was about 25% of the amount spent on highway construction. In 2009, maintenance spending equaled about 19% of highway construction spending.

Republican Walker, when he was in the state legislature, cast some votes for those bad budgets. But this is a bipartisan issue. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle rejected a request for a 1% annual highway maintenance budget increases for 2009-11.

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