By Dennis A. Shook   Published Dec 14, 2004 at 5:09 AM

{image1} How about raising funds and exacting revenge on Illinois drivers by locating tolls for freeway drivers headed north into Wisconsin?

That is one idea being advanced by an advocate for using tolls to help fund the state's pending projects.

The state is facing an uphill freeway rebuilding and widening challenge in the next 20 years even as the money needed to build those roads is not on an equally sharp incline. In other words, the streets may not be paved with gold as much as by gold.

Former state legislator Kevin Soucie has been claiming the best way to lift the burden off of the taxpayers is to allow for a "public/private partnership" to pay for many freeway projects -- tolls.

He continues to push for tolls even though Gov. Jim Doyle said he would never allow them while he leads the state. Funding of the largest current project -- the demolition and reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee -- is already in place, but Soucie contends other pending projects could carry a similar price tag. The Marquette project shut down a chunk of Downtown interstate Friday and similar road closings are scheduled to continue for the next four years.

Soucie claims it is likely that such important pending freeway projects as rebuilding the Zoo Interchange, the east/west Interstate94 corridor between Waukesha and Milwaukee Counties, and the Mitchell Interchange and widening of I-94 south from the Mitchell to the state line may have to be delayed if they are looking to use the current funding methods.

"The state has the equivalent of five or six Marquette Interchanges coming on the horizon," Soucie says, referring to the $800 million project.

"The beauty of such a public/private model is it transfers risk off of the backs of taxpayers and onto investors," Soucie says. "You can attract all the capital you need and projects don't have to wait in line."

The new version of tolls would not be like its predecessors. Soucie says the new generation of toll collection would revolve around a changed technology that allows for connecting vehicles with computer tracking systems to collect the tolls.

Soucie says, "I look at the budget and I see a deficit. This is the whole impetus for us developing the alternative, because I see a transportation funding crisis on the horizon. The state's options could be less because the federal aid is going away. With their own budget problems, it is clear they will not lavish the state with cash. So the only other major sources of revenue are the gas tax, which is already one of highest in country, or the (motor vehicle) registration fee."

Soucie adds that Doyle and the state Legislature also have tried to limit any tax increases.

"You can now pay a toll in one of two ways," he says. "If a person is a regular user, they can set up an account with a company and they would give you a transponder like an 'I-pass' (in Illinois)," Soucie says. "If I don't have that transponder, (the system equipment) sends a signal to my car and immediately images my license plate and sends me a bill. It is that new technology that makes this possible."

When the stretch of freeway from the state line to Mitchell International Airport is widened and rebuilt as planned in another five years, that would be the ideal place for a toll, he believes.

"Because of the use of that segment by Illinois people and other nonresidents, it would be a tremendous missed opportunity for taxpayers if that is not tolled," he says.

After the tollway contract terms run out, the tollways would revert to the state, he says. If a toll company were to go bankrupt or not properly maintain a road, the state would receive the road as its asset.

Soucie sees other areas like Hudson and even Beloit as other possible toll areas, along with the Zoo Interchange. Soucie says the tollways have been working well in places like Chicago, Canada and California. And he believes it could also work well with the Marquette Interchange.

But along with Doyle, the state Department of Transportation is not interested in pursuing any such partnership. And DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi disputes Soucie's contention that the upcoming freeway projects cannot be funded in the normal way.

"The Marquette Interchange funds are in our budget being submitted to the governor and we have the funding for Marquette," Busalacchi says. "I like Kevin but he's on the outside looking in. This project and the others are going to get done. The governor has committed to the infrastructure under his 'Grow Wisconsin' plan."

Busalacchi says the DOT just completed a survey and the end result was that "people said they want good roads and safety and they want roads maintained. Our budget does all of that. And they were adamantly opposed to user fees . Maybe Illinois wants tolls but we don't."

Shook is the government/political reporter for the Waukesha Freeman.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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