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Oneida Co. Highway Commissioner worries transportation funding issues will lead to significant cuts in rural road projectsSubmitted: 06/20/2016
Story By Lane Kimble

Oneida Co. Highway Commissioner worries transportation funding issues will lead to significant cuts in rural road projects
RHINELANDER - Making fewer trips to the gas pump should make most drivers happy. But filling up less could result in worse roads--especially in rural, Northwoods counties--if the state doesn't find a way to generate more cash.

Money from the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees make up more than half of Wisconsin's nearly $7 billion transportation budget.

But in June, state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said gas tax revenue is dropping. Without new funding, Gottlieb says the state will only have enough money to focus on the "backbone," major roads.

Oneida County Highway Commissioner Freeman Bennett worries that decreased could mean that smaller counties like his will lose out to projects in the southern part of the state.


"We're still up here," Bennett said. "We still enjoy tourists coming to our area. We want nice roads for them to drive on. And first and foremost is safety."

Bennett says about half of Oneida County's road construction budget comes from state funding and grants. He suspects that money would disappear if the state cuts back on transportation spending.

State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) knows a bitter fight over transportation funding already happened during the last budget cycle.

"I am somewhat frustrated and a little embarrassed, quite frankly, that the Legislature did not fix the transportation shortcoming in the last budget," Swearingen said. "Now here we are headed into the next budget cycle with the governor wanting to kick the can down the road."

Swearingen sees a handful of possible fixes: raising the gas tax, building toll roads, or borrowing more money. But Gov. Walker says he won't allow any of those changes to the funding formula.

"I'm not in favor of raising gas taxes either, but if the state doesn't do something, all it does it push the onus back on the local governments, the counties, the towns," Swearingen said.

Bennett says the budget gap is worrisome, but he doesn't want drivers to worry yet.

"I believe that [state lawmakers are] going to come up with a way to make things work for us, I truly do," Bennett said. "They have a huge investment. They're not going to let it fall behind."

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