His opponents say that level of spending is not enough, and argue the state needs to raise the gas tax to boost funding. They've built their argument on a supposed billion-dollar deficit in the transportation fund, which the MacIver Institute debunked earlier this month. Their efforts have also been frustrated by the results of a recent state audit that focused on the highway program. It uncovered enough examples of inefficiencies, incompetence and illicit behavior at the DOT to convince some lawmakers not to support any additional funding until the new DOT secretary can clean house.
The Senate Committee on Transportation and Veterans Affairs just recommended Dave Ross's appointment as DOT secretary on March 16th. Although not yet confirmed, he's been in charge at DOT since the beginning of January. Ross believes revenue is not the DOT's problem. He says the main problem is spending and that the DOT has taken on more projects than it could ever complete in a reasonable timeline. He has committed the DOT to adopt all the recommendations found in the audit.
In an effort to explore one potential efficiency, Walker is proposing a pilot program concerning the DOT's bid process. Right now, the DOT works with consultants to plan projects, and then bids out the construction phase separately. Walker's budget would authorize a pilot program to see if it makes sense to let the consultants that plan the project also execute it, providing they meet certain requirements.
One of the areas Governor Walker points to when he talks about boosting transportation spending is local aids. His budget would increase county aid by $15.9 million, municipal aid by $14 million, and the local roads improvement program by $14 million. Part of this increase will come from a permanent transfer of funds from the Petroleum Inspection Fund, which is a 2 cents-per-gallon tax and will raise an estimated $19 million annually during the biennium.
That increase to the Local Roads Improvement Program (LRIP) represents a 25.2 percent boost. The LRIP is a grant program to help local communities pay for capital projects. Currently, grants can cover up to 50 percent of the cost. Walker wants to change that to 60 percent. The total boost in funding to the program would be $14 million, a 25.2 percent increase from last budget.
Under the governor's budget, there would be no change to mass transit funding, but Milwaukee County would be getting new buses from the $26 million Volkswagen settlement.
Walker's DOT budget includes a pretty significant change to the DMV that will directly affect every driver in the state. He wants the department to send renewal notifications to drivers by email. This would not be a complete replacement for traditional notices, and people would have to request the email service.
Finally, Governor Walker wants to do some department streamlining with this budget too. He's proposing moving the DOT's human resources functions, an accountant, and an IT position to DOA.
The DOT uses the International Roughness Index (IRI) to determine how smooth roads are, which is required for federal reports. It also uses the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) to determine the overall integrity of roads, which relies on an individual engineer's personal assessment of photographed cracks on the surface. Then there are local units of government, which are required to collect data on local roads. Most use a system similar to PCI called PACER. The DOT says PACER data cannot be used together with PCI, because they use different measurement scales. All these methods require different equipment for collection.
"There's kind of been multiple sides in the discussion on the condition, the funding, and the management of the system. I think regardless of where you come down on this, I think there are bullet points or there's some meat in here for you," Rep. John Nygren stated at the public hearing on the DOT audit.
"How can we really understand the true condition if we can use different scales? My fear is with different measures, it appears as if it makes it easier to craft a message," Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Pewaukee) later said at that same hearing.
Kapenga and Nygren are correct in their assessment. Within the DOT audit there were three different sets of results for road conditions in 2014. The IRI results indicate 32 percent of the state's roads are in good condition. According to CPI, 64 percent of backbone highways are in good condition and 40 percent of non-backbone highways are in good condition. Using those three sets of results, you could also say either about 1 percent or 9 percent or 17 percent of Wisconsin roads are in not acceptable, poor or worse condition.
Then there's always the statistics game, where you can pick and combine different categories. By combining the IRI's results for Good and Acceptable roads, you could say 91 percent of Wisconsin roads are in fine shape. That's what the DOT was able to do in the example above.
When MacIver News wanted to take a closer look at the IRI data and see how the results change over time, the DOT provided the link to a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) report. Now in the audit, there were three categories for IRI: Good, Acceptable, and Not Acceptable. In the FHWA report, there are eight different ranges: <60, 60-94, 95-119, 120-144, 145-170, 171-194, 195-220, and >220. Also, roads fall into one of eight different types: interstate rural, other freeways and expressways rural, other principal arterial rural, minor arterial rural, interstate urban, other freeways and expressways urban, other principal arterial urban, and minor arterial urban. MNS asked the DOT, how was all this official data condensed into the one neat table broken into good, acceptable and not acceptable roads? The DOT did not respond.
There are reasons for the different rating systems. IRI is the most objective and easiest method to employ. PCI provides the most data, but it is expensive, subjective, and time consuming. PCI is mostly used by local governments across the country, because it makes sense on that scale. The Federal Highway Administration requires states to report using the IRI data, because CPI data collection is so inconsistent from state to state. It learned this when conducting a study on I-90 in 2012 and compared data from South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Most states only collect IRI because they have to, and many consider CPI to be too impractical to collect on a statewide level. Wisconsin, however, believes that CPI is invaluable in decision making, and so the state collects the IRI for the feds and CPI for the state.
During the Audit hearing, one of the auditors related what DOT officials have been telling him for years "You can have a bumpy road, but the underlying quality of the road could be very good. A bumpy road doesn't necessary mean the DOT would have to initiate rehabilitation or major highway work to fix it. So that's why DOT has moved to that Pavement Condition Index that involves high resolution photography and an experienced DOT engineer looking at the condition of the road, and not only saying how many cracks does this road segment have, but what types of cracks... because different cracks mean different things."
If you were to ask the DOT, these measures show road conditions are getting better all the time. In fact, according to a January 2017 DOT report, 97.6 percent of state (backbone) highways and 78.8 percent of non-backbone highway were in fair or better condition.