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Mr. Fix-it First? On the Transportation Evolution of Scott Walker

Imagine you are a politician.

You want to please your suburban constituents (as well as road builders, real estate interests and the trucking industry) by widening highways. Yet, you don’t want to anger those same constituents by backing an increase in the gas tax.

What do you do?

The answer for many political leaders of both parties has been to pretend that you can have your cake and eat it, too. Last week, Jeff Davis at the Eno Center for Transportation posted what might be the definitive recent history of the Highway Trust Fund – the main source of federal transportation funding, originally created to distribute revenue from the federal gas tax. Starting in 2002, Congress resorted to budgetary gimmicks and increasingly generous taxpayer bailouts in order to keep the Trust Fund from going belly-up.

The federal gas tax has lost 40 percent of its value since it was last raised a quarter-century ago, but the federal government has not cut highway spending to match. It’s the same story in many states, which have used a variety of strategies to keep the bulldozers humming: taking money from other portions of state budgets, launching public-private partnerships, and – as my colleague Gideon Weissman described in our recent Highway Boondoggles 4 report – loading up on debt. (See figure below.)

Highway Debt of State Transportation Agencies Has Doubled Since 2008 (Source: Federal Highway Administration)

So, last week, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker admit that – amidst limited funding and rising maintenance needs – grandiose highway-widening megaprojects might not be such a big priority after all.

"There are some groups out there that want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state," Walker said, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I actually think we should be fixing and maintaining our infrastructure. I don’t know that we need bigger and better and broader right now when we have a changing transportation system."

I nearly spit out my Pepsi when I saw that quote. Walker’s Wisconsin has been a special focus of our ongoing work to expose and challenge the need for highway boondoggles around the country. In 2013, we joined with our partners at WISPIRG Foundation to release Road Overkill, which examined six completed highway expansion projects in the state, finding that most had failed to reach the projected traffic levels used to justify their construction. A year later, we released Fork in the Road, which examined the costs of four highway expansion megaprojects being championed by the Walker administration and highlighted better ways to spend that money.

Walker’s evolution is likely the result of anti-tax election year politics and an outgrowth of years of dedicated work by a broad coalition of groups, led by WISPIRG, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, Sierra Club and the faith group WISDOM, along with many others, which challenged the expansion projects and shifted the transportation conversation in Wisconsin. Those groups also celebrated a victory late last year when Gov. Walker pulled the plug on the proposed billion-dollar expansion of I-94 East-West in Milwaukee – a boondoggle we criticized in Fork in the Road and that the coalition had fought for many years.

Highway expansion projects are not only colossally expensive and disruptive, but they typically do not solve the problem they are intended to solve – congestion – and divert resources from more pressing needs, such as highway and bridge maintenance, transit, and investments in safer streets. By encouraging driving, they also deepen our dependence on fossil fuels and make climate change worse.

Given all that, you would expect Democrats to be pushing leaders like Walker to go even further in reorienting transportation spending away from highway expansion and toward system repair and investment in more sustainable options.

Well, about that. A spokesperson for Walker’s November gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Tony Evers, responded to Walker’s statement as follows: “Restricting road expansion in Wisconsin’s fastest-growing areas would be an economic disaster and drive massive traffic congestion.” The article noted that Evers would “consider all options for getting more money for highways.”

Let’s be clear: Scott Walker is no sustainable transportation visionary. Walker famously turned down federal money for a high-speed rail link between Chicago and Madison, eventually paying $50 million for trains the state never used. Transit service has suffered terribly under Walker. His latest positioning on highway expansion does not make up for those missteps.

But the highway debate in Wisconsin does illustrate the ways in which debates about transportation can transcend traditional partisan lines.

When it comes to the climate impacts of transportation, one of the most important things we can do is to follow the Hippocratic Oath:  First, do no harm. Highway expansions are sprawl-inducing, traffic-generating, fossil fuel-consuming, greenhouse gas-emitting machines. Every new one makes the battle against global warming that much harder to win.

Yet, as Erica Flock and others have noted, Wisconsin is not the only state in which Democrats – these days the party of the environment, if largely by default – have touted counterproductive spending on bigger roads and bridges. Early signs this election cycle suggest that, despite Democrats’ outspoken opposition to President Trump’s denial of climate change, things don’t seem to be getting much better.

On the other hand, Walker’s evolution suggests that, at least on some issues related to transportation and sustainability, there is an opening for tactical alliances with conservatives seeking to move from what Joe Cortright has labeled “asphalt socialism” to a genuine position of concern about the proper expenditure of public funds.

For sustainable transportation advocates who are primarily concerned not with the overall level of government infrastructure spending but rather with investing wisely in the “right stuff,” this situation is both unsettling and a source of hope. It is unsettling because advocates for sustainable transportation are, to some degree, outsiders in both political parties. But it is a sign of hope because it suggests that coalitions for smarter policy can be formed almost anywhere – in both Red states and Blue.

One of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had about transportation in recent years took place at the 2017 Strong Towns transportation summit in Tulsa. I spent an hour in a small group talking with a group of people from rural Oklahoma whose day-to-day reality was about as different from my daily life in Boston as could possibly be. They were primarily concerned about public health problems resulting from lack of physical activity in the community, and saw walking as a great way to get people up and moving. But traffic on the main street through town was so fast and unpredictable as to make walking there unpleasant and dangerous. It wasn’t long before talk turned to tactical urbanism, which was not, to say the least, what I thought we would be talking about when the conversation started.

There is, I believe, a constituency for an approach to infrastructure that focuses less on the total expenditure of dollars and cents and more on the quality and appropriateness of what we build. In transportation, that means prioritizing high-value investments that deliver broad societal benefits – road and bridge repairs, restoration and expansion of transit service, investments in safer streets, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, safe places to scoot, and more.

Could such an approach bring together environmentalists and fiscal conservatives, urbanists and rural residents who care about getting the street in their small town repaved every once in a while? If we truly care about environmental, public and fiscal health, I hope so. The evolution of the transportation conversation in Wisconsin suggests that maybe, just maybe, it can.

Much gratitude to WISPIRG's Peter Skopec for his help with this post. 

Photo: U.S. 141, Marinette Co., Wisconsin, via Wikimedia Commons