There will be no speculation here as to whether Mark Gottlieb retired as Wisconsin’s secretary of the Department of Transportation just because he wanted to, or was asked politely to step aside, or was summarily fired.
No matter what the reason he is leaving the cabinet post on Friday, it doesn’t change the fact that he gave the state outstanding service for six years trying to do a job that ultimately proved to be impossible.
Interviewed by Ozaukee Press when he was appointed transportation secretary by Gov. Scott Walker, he called it his “dream job.” When interviewed by the Press about his retirement last week, he said, “I’m just not talking about it.” He didn’t have to; everyone could see that the most important part of his job—keeping up with the state’s needs for highway maintenance and construction—had turned into something more like a nightmare than a dream.
The DOT chief’s hands were tied by the insistence of the governor that no new revenue, not even that which would result from a modest increase in the gas tax, be spent on roads. During his tenure, Gottlieb put together creative financing proposals that paired the bonding favored by the governor with a small gas-tax hike and some experimental use of fees based on miles driven. But nothing flew against the anti-tax wind that prevailed in Madison.
As a team player, Gottlieb gave the governor the budget he wanted for the coming biennium —one that included no new revenue, just new borrowing, but not enough for the state to stay on pace with its road repair and building needs.
In a statement that was as honest as it was politically incorrect, Gottlieb told the Assembly Transportation Committee several weeks before his retirement was announced that the effect of the budget would be to double the number of roads in poor condition in the state in the next 10 years.
Gottlieb was also known to tell it like it was when he was the mayor of Port Washington, a position he held after serving as a city alderman and before being elected to the state Assembly. The Common Council meetings over which he presided were known for the open and frank airing of issues, often marked by lively and illuminating exchanges among council members and the citizens in attendance.
The city generally fared well under Gottlieb, though this editorial page did not agree with the mayor’s approach to the most important issue he faced—the decision that ensured that the city would have a huge power plant on its lakefront far into the future.
When We Energies announced that it planned to shut down the Port Washington coal-fired plant and replace it with a new one using gas-fired generators, Press editorials, arguing that the city and its residents deserved relief from the nuisance of the power plant they had endured for some 70 years, urged the mayor and council to deny permits for the new plant and acquire the lakefront site for public use and non-intrusive private development.
An engineer through and through and a practical man, Gottlieb measured the difficulty of a small town with limited resources fighting a giant utility to rid the site of the massive structure and the residue of its operations, and with council backing opted to make a deal.
The results of the arduous negotiations led by Gottlieb are obvious today. The city has the new plant on its lakefront—enormous, brutally industrial, shockingly out of place. But it also has possession of the former power plant’s deep-water dock, the sprawling Coal Dock Park, more than 40 acres of former We Energies lakeshore land soon to be developed, access to the south beach and an annual cash stipend from the utility in lieu of taxes.
It’s not the perfect outcome, but it is one that benefits the city significantly, and Gottlieb would be entitled to regard it as his legacy to his hometown.
As for his record as transportation secretary, he won’t be able to claim credit for smooth roads. But that is not for lack of trying as the head of a huge and complex department of state government who, as Assembly Majority Leader Robin Voss put it in a gracious send-off, was “one of our most hard-working and articulate public leaders” whose “expertise and candor will be missed.”