Audit finds additional $3.1 billion in state transportation debt - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Audit finds additional $3.1 billion in state transportation debt

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin's transportation budget is in worse shape than originally thought and so is the condition of the state's highways.

That's what an audit of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation released Thursday concluded.

According to the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), agency officials underestimated the cost of 16 highway projects already under construction by $3.1 billion, by failing to account for inflation.

The audit also found the percentage of state highways considered to be in "good" condition fell from 54 percent in 2010 to 41 percent by 2015.

"Democrats tried to help Republicans in the last budget cycle in addressing this and possibly raising the gas tax, revisiting the issue of indexing and they all said no, because the Governor would veto it," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).

Rep. Samantha Kerkman, who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said ideas such as reinstating indexing on the gas tax - which would automatically increase the amount of the tax for inflation - has to be put on the table along with some restructuring within WISDOT.

"It's on us now to really hold the DOT accountable for the road maintenance and where we go and spend our few dollars that we have," said Rep. Kerkman.

Since 2006, the amount of engineering design work completed by WISDOT has declined by 10 percent, while the amount of construction work has gone down by 5 percent, according to LAB.

Prior to the release of Thursday's audit report, state lawmakers were staring at a nearly $1 billion transportation deficit that has to be filled in the 2017-19 budget.

As of Thursday evening, legislators from both parties were still trying to determine exactly how much that hole might grow for the next two years due to the LAB's findings.

The audit found there are some savings to be had within WISDOT simply by adjusting the way they budget for projects and by completing more projects on time.

But most lawmakers agree there aren't enough savings to fix the long-term funding shortfall, especially since the conditions of the roads are only getting worse.

Gov. Walker did not make himself to the media Thursday due to a cold, but took to Twitter Thursday afternoon to blame his predecessor for some of the problems found in the audit.

"Democrat critics ignore the fact that they were in office when Governor and Legislature raided $1.4 billion from the transportation fund," tweeted Walker about former Gov. Jim Doyle (D).

As a result of that transfer of funds from the transportation fund to the state's general-purpose revenue fund in the 2009-11 budget by Democrats, Republicans later passed legislation prohibiting any transfer out of the transportation fund in the future.

Another eye-popping number from the audit found the amount of debt payments on bonding (borrowing) for roads rose from just $6.4 million in 1996 to $211.6 million in 2016 - an increase of 3,200 percent.

Sen. Erpenbach laid the blame for that at the feet of both Gov. Doyle and Gov. Walker - saying neither wanted to pay for road work as they went.

But Erpenbach said Gov. Walker has had numerous chances to reverse that trend and continues to "kick the can down the road."

Gov. Walker will reveal his plans for the state transportation budget on February 8th.

Since 2011, the Republican controlled legislature and Gov. Walker have transferred $561 million in cash from the state's general fund into transportation - and borrowed another $375 million in general purpose revenue for road improvements.

Another transfer from the general fund is likely to make up for the transportation shortfall.

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