Funding for state highway projects, including the Verona Road interchange could be in jeopardy if Congress does not act, according to a group that held a news conference Monday.
Contractors, building trades unions and Congressman Mark Pocan held an afternoon news conference to discuss the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, where federal funding comes from for major highway projects.
The Obama Administration warned last week that the fund was close to going broke, and that Congress needed to act by the end of August to fund existing highway projects. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Wisconsin stands to lose $726.2 million in federal highway funding if the federal government doesn't meet its obligations.
"How can I as a businessman go out and hire new workers?" asked Jim Hoffman, president of Hoffman Construction Company, which is the principal contractor on the Verona Road project. "We are ready, willing and able to do that, but I need some certainty. I need to see a commitment from the federal government that they will meet the obligations and appropriations that have been made."
The trust fund is funded through an 18.4 cent gas tax, but has been decreasing because of improving fuel efficiency of vehicles. Pocan said that tax should be increased to help cover the cost of highway projects.
"I still think the gas tax is probably the best place to go to," Pocan said. "When you look at what it is, 18.4 cents, it is five percent of what you're paying on a gallon of gas. It doesn't add that much."
States initially fund highway construction projects and then get reimbursed for the costs through the Highway Trust Fund, according to a release. The question now is whether states will be paid back in a timely manner. Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said the state can fund its obligations through Sept. 30, but then Congress needs to take action on both the trust fund and a reauthorization of the transportation budget.
"Under a scenario where the federal program basically stops, which it would in the absence of a reauthorization or continuation bill, the impact of that would be significant," Gottlieb said. "I can't say that there would be any project necessarily that wouldn't be affected."
The state reported to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials that 180 projects could be at risk, including the Interstate 39/90 reconstruction in Rock and Dane counties, Highway 12 in Lake Delton and the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee County.
Congress takes a recess at the end of August, and Pocan as well as road building groups are encouraging action before then.