Politico examines Wisconsin’s “Love Affair with Overpasses”

By Eric Sundquist

The transportation record of a prominent presidential candidate is the jumping off point for a lengthy, critical report on American transportation policy in Politico last week.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently proposed to dramatically increase borrowing in order to support several highway megaprojects in southern Wisconsin. “Walker, who is running for president as a staunch fiscal conservative, has pushed a $250 million-per-mile plan to widen Interstate 94 between the Marquette and the Zoo despite fierce local opposition,” Politico’s Michael Grunwald writes.

Grunwald notes that the big spending contrasted with big cuts in other areas of the budget. The legislature, concerned over the scale of borrowing, eventually scaled it back.

But Grunwald points out that the size of the budget is not the only, or even the most important, issue—both in Wisconsin and in Washington.

“As the transportation bill takes center stage on Capitol Hill this week,” he writes, “we’re hearing plenty of impassioned speeches about the woeful state of American infrastructure, about the failure of our political system to invest in the future of our nation. But taxpayer-funded megaprojects … are obvious reminders that America still does invest mightily in transportation infrastructure. It’s less obvious what all that investment is achieving, and for whom it’s being achieved. For all the debate over how much money to spend on transportation and how to raise the money, there’s been much less debate about how the money should be spent.”

In Wisconsin, he writes, “snazzy megaprojects crowd out basic repairs, and politicians lavish attention on big highways at the expense of local roads and public transit.”

Still, “Washington’s long-term transportation plan seems to be to keep shoveling billions of dollars to the states, to keep leaving it to local politicians to decide how those dollars are spent, and to hope somebody can eventually figure out a way to pay for it all.”

Note: SSTI is housed at the University of Wisconsin, and Grunwald points out that WisDOT, unlike DOTs in most surrounding states, does not participate in our innovation-oriented network. We do, however, know that the there are plenty of thoughtful staff members in the department and would welcome engaging with WisDOT leadership.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.