By Neal Patten - November 1st 2022
A dozen leaders with direct ties to—or interests in—mass transit and Wisconsin’s transportation industry came together on Tuesday at Blackhawk Technical College to talk about how people will move around the state into the future.
The four-hour summit, the Wisconsin Tomorrow Workforce Transportation Action Accelerator, drew Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson, construction business group executive director Robb Kahl and Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association Executive Director Steve Baas, among others.
As the group discussed challenges today and obstacles ahead for transportation in the state, several themes emerged that they said will be important going forward. Foremost will be working to help people see infrastructure spending as both a present and future investment, Wisconsin Counties Association President and CEO of Mark O’Connell said.
That requires government entities to communicate their plans to invest in infrastructure, to ensure citizens understand they are building a transportation system for everyone, Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin Executive Director Debby Jackson said.
Government needs to better educate the public on how tax dollars are providing a return on investment in the form of reliable infrastructure, Kahl said. “They’re not asking you for your money, they’re asking for an investment,” Kahl said.
Electric vehicles were mentioned throughout the conference. As they begin to replace gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, there’s likely to be a loss of fuel tax revenue that is now spent on road projects, speakers said. That might necessitate a user fee for electric vehicle users to help offset the loss, Thompson said.
Madison Gas and Electric President and CEO of Jeff Keebler said he believes electrification will provide equity, bringing down travel costs for everyone.
Another theme was how to attract workers to Wisconsin, and how to keep young graduates here post-college. Summit attendees shared what they have heard workers say would keep them in the state—bikeable cities, more reliable high-speed internet, and expanded passenger rail to Chicago.
The discussion turned to whether business owners should help invest in some of those amenities to attract and retain the state’s workforce, which some speakers said might move such projects along faster than relying solely on government action.
Blackhawk Technical College President Tracy Pierner said, however, there exists more than just a mismatch between what workers want out of their towns and cities and what those communities have to offer. There is also a mismatch between what young adults are studying and what skills they are developing, versus what jobs are actually available, he said.
Students need to be directed into fields of study for which they can later find employment in their communities, and be matched with opportunities there, Pierner said.
“It’s the same problem everywhere, a mismatch of what our kids are viewing as their future and what is available in their community,” he said. “Students are choosing pathways that lead nowhere and paying a lot to do it. This is a societal issue. We need to match our kids up earlier with things they will end up doing later on.”
The panelists also discussed federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
Baas warned there is a danger that the federal windfall of funds can feel like a “sugar high” for municipalities, but said that they need to remember this is one-time funding, and to invest wisely.
O’Connell said the ARPA funds present a conundrum. Transportation infrastructure, once built, needs a steady revenue stream for upkeep and maintenance, but the ARPA funds have a beginning and an end, he said. He urged local governments to consider spending that money on projects that won’t require ongoing funding once ARPA dries up.
Most important for the future of the state’s infrastructure is bipartisanship, O’Connell added, urging politicians to set differences aside to ensure Wisconsin is a driveable, bikeable, walkable state.
“If you care about the future of this state, if we want to affect what our future looks like in 20 years, infrastructure and transportation is not a partisan issue,” he said.
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