MADISON, Wis. – In a jarring video released last week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos rides in the back of an ambulance to demonstrate just how rough – and potentially dangerous – Racine County roads can be for first responders.
But is the Rochester Republican, pusher of the all-options-on-the-table approach (cue the gas tax increase) to fixing Wisconsin’s transportation budget just taking taxpayers for a ride?
In his four-minute video, titled “Road Work Ahead,” Vos travels with his cousin, an EMS worker in Burlington, to showcase the cost of not filling Wisconsin’s nearly $1 billion Transportation budget shortfall.
Vos says his cousin challenged him to check out the roads EMS crews and their patients are forced to ride every day in Racine County.
“I took him up on his challenge. That’s why we are here today going through normal roads in Racine County to show why it’s so important that while some think our roads are just fine, for people who deal with life and death situations, it makes a really big difference,” Vos says from the back of a rattling ambulance.
But the roads on which Vos travels in the video have picked up significant funding in recent years, and stand to see record increases in the next biennial budget — without an increase to the state gas tax.
The three local units of government responsible for the roads have received millions of dollars over the past several years, according to documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
Racine County has received $354,409 in average annual Local Roads Improvement Program funding from the state between fiscal year 2006 and 2017. The Town of Burlington took in $51,069 on average per fiscal year over the period.
Racine County will have received more than $2.33 million on average per year in General Transportation Aids in calendar years 2015 through 2017; the city of Burlington will have received nearly $600,000 on average annually over that period.
Local governments have significant discretion on what projects to fund with state and federal funding. The state plays little role in prioritization of local projects.
Many of those bumpy roads Vos takes taxpayers on are already in line for expensive maintenance projects. Bushnell Road, for instance, is slated to be let for resurfacing in March. The project will use $5.3 million in federal aid and $2.2 million in state funds.
A spokeswoman for the speaker said Vos applauds DOT’s plans to resurface a road featured in his Road Work Ahead video.
The Town of Burlington, the city of Racine, and Racine County each expects to see an 8.16 percent increase in state transportation funding in the next fiscal year.
Gov. Scott Walker is proposing record increases in local transportation aid, without hiking the gas tax or raising fees.
While Walker and other conservatives are dead set against such “revenue enhancements,” Vos and other Republican leaders insist nothing can be ruled out if Wisconsin is going to fix its long-term transportation funding problems. Vos asserts, in his ambulance ride video and beyond, that coming up with expanded funding sources is a matter of life and death.
“We did not come in here to increase taxes,” Kapenga said in a conference call with reporters. “Really, from our perspective, trying to put into place a permanent tax increase to fix a temporary issue, that is not responsible.”
Critics also say Vos is trying to use local road condition issues, which the governor’s budget address, to make the case to raise revenue – money that would be funneled into four mega projects in Southeast Wisconsin and Madison, and into the pockets of the state road builder lobby.
“So far all the messaging we are hearing is they want to funnel the money to these major projects,” said Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director of Americans for Prosperity. “I think it’s fair to ask the question, if taxes are increased, will that money go to improving local roads out state?”
Vos told Wisconsin Watchdog Wednesday that, “Safe rides for EMS and patients on the way to the hospital is a reasonable expectation.”
“The video was intended to be an illustration of a larger problem that EMS officials confirm is happening around the state,” he said.
Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer in an email said the Assembly Transportation Committee hearing last week revealed the proposed DOT budget doesn’t even come close to meeting the needs of Wisconsin’s transportation system.
“The DOT Secretary stated that 42 percent of the major roads and half of the secondary roads will be in poor condition in 10 years under the current plan. In addition, the Towns Associations said the funds provided under the current DOT proposal would only allow for the construction of 53 feet of road in a township,” Beyer said.
“Speaker Vos has repeatedly said every option should be on the table so that we can put forward a comprehensive package that the public understands and is in the best interests of the Wisconsin taxpayer,” Beyer added. “The first necessary step is to review the upcoming DOT audit to determine where we can find additional cost savings within the agency itself.”
Last week, Stroebel and Kapenga released a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau detailing what they say are the potential costs of a gas tax increase. The document examines two different levels of transportation spending to see how much gas taxes would have to go up if there were no additional borrowing.
“In order to fund the gap under the wish list of the gas tax increase advocates without doing any bonding, they would have to increase our gas tax by over 90 percent,” Kapenga said.
That’s approximately 28 cents per gallon, for taxpayers keeping score at home, or nearly double the 30.9-cent state tax on every gallon of gasoline.
Vos said leadership is proposing no such thing and that some of his colleagues are engaging in “fear mongering.”
“While it’s laudable that Senators Kapenga and Stroebel say they’re relying on their CPA and business experience to analyze what they describe as the transportation fund’s spending problem, they’re deliberately ignoring the other side of the balance sheet in favor of politics and fear mongering,” the speaker said in a prepared statement.
Kapenga told Wisconsin Watchdog that he finds it interesting that the Assembly speaker who made a transportation funding pitch video from the back of an ambulance is criticizing fellow Republicans for “fear-mongering.”
The transportation battle has made combatants of long-time friends.
Vos has criticized Walker’s plan to borrow $500 million. The governor’s plan also delays some big-ticket projects in Milwaukee and Racine.
Walker wants specifics. He has asked Vos and Assembly leadership to make their plan public “so taxpayers know how much it will cost them.”
There is no doubt that Wisconsin has some rough roads. Marc Cohen, executive director of the Wisconsin EMS Association, told Fox6 News in Milwaukee the bumpy roads featured in Vos’ video are “an example of what local EMS are dealing with throughout the state of Wisconsin.”
Stroebel said he hopes the Legislature will take a more “holistic” approach to transportation funding, looking at where savings can be gained first.