By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — As Wisconsin prepares for an avalanche of federal transportation cash, a conservative state lawmaker is warning unexpected expenses come with big government gifts.
Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) also advises his legislative colleagues to watch out for road builders and liberal politicians coming around with their hands out, even as it rains federal aid.
“Now Wisconsin will receive approximately $260 million in additional federal dollars for roads and bridges over each of the next five years. In light of this windfall from the federal government, the Legislature should question the need for any additional ‘revenue uppers’ for the state’s transportation fund for the foreseeable future,” the lawmaker said in a statement this week after the Joint Finance Committee approved much of the state Department of Transportation’s spending plan.
Stroebel, a member of the powerful budget-writing committee, voted for the plan, with his caveats. The state is expected to receive $283 million for the fiscal year, 56 percent allocated to local projects and 44 percent to state projects.
The federal transportation aid checked in at about 35 percent more than the Badger State was counting on. The money — from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion colossus of an “infrastructure’ bill — was hard to pass up.
But Stroebel pointed to the inflationary damage that unthinkingly printing money is causing U.S. consumers, and the many hidden strings attached to federal aid.
He notes the “aggressive public messaging campaign” from road builders, then-candidate for governor Tony Evers and Craig Thompson, the road builder lobbyist who would become Democrat Evers’ transportation secretary. They hammered former Gov Scott Walker with campaign ads demanding more money for roads.
“This campaign sought to convince the residents of our state that anything short of the Legislature providing a blank check for transportation infrastructure spending was unacceptable, as crumbling roads and bridges would be the inevitable result,” Stroebel said.
The interests got their prince in 2019 when Evers took office. Later that year, Evers signed a budget that included all kinds of transportation fund “enhancers.” That included some $360 million in vehicle registration and title fees. Those “fees” don’t go away from one budget to the next. They’re now built into the budget formula moving forward.
But beyond the mountain of money on top of the transportation budget base are the requirements, some costly, attached to the federal funds.
“One would be hard-pressed to find a source of federal aid with more costly red tape than transportation spending,” Stroebel said, adding that he’s spoken with several town and village officials who say they will forego applying for federal money because of the steep mandate costs.
In a memo obtained by Empower Wisconsin, one transportation consultant advises some of their Wisconsin town and village clients not to bother applying for the local road and bridge funds. The federal government picks up 80 percent of design and construction costs, but the front-end costs and red tape tied to the “free” money is too cost prohibitive.
“Engineering costs may double or triple due to the reporting and Plans, Specifications, and Estimates (PS&E) requirements of federal programs, cutting into the cost savings of the grant,” the memo states. “As many as three separate consulting firms may be assigned to the project for the application phase, design / reporting phase, and construction management phase.” Duplication of service is the big-government way.
Construction costs may increase significantly because of projects being state let (meaning the state will advertise and bid the project), and county workers being disqualified from performing street improvements, according to the memo.
“Local specifications cannot be followed; the improvements must be designed to federal standards. Under these standards, streets may need to be widened, including potential right-of-way acquisitions, shoulder widening and re-ditching,” the document states.
Stroebel has long argued for transportation dollar swaps, essentially trading federal funding for state money on local projects. Federal money is then moved over to the larger state infrastructure campaigns. Doing so eliminates a lot of the federal red tape, compliance costs and duplication of services common with federally funded projects. Ultimately, it saves taxpayer money and generally keeps the work moving.
“Federal transportation dollars come with strings attached, including federal prevailing wage requirements. This regulatory burden drives up project costs, so it makes sense to consolidate federal funds on large projects while ensuring that local projects are completed with state funds as often as possible,” the senator said in 2018 following a major funding swap approved by the state budget committee.