Report: State’s local roads crumbling

-Originally posted on The County Today
-By Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor |

Lo­cal roads through­out Wis­con­sin, but es­pe­cially those in the state’s north­west­ern re­gion, are on a col­li­sion course for dis­as­ter, ac­cord­ing to a new anal­y­sis.

More than 42,000 miles of lo­cal roads in the state re­quire “im­me­di­ate re­pair,” based on data from the Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, ac­cord­ing to study re­sults shared March 24 by mem­bers of 1,000 Friends of Wis­con­sin, along with the Wis­con­sin Public In­ter­est Re­search Group and the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chap­ter.

The groups called on the state Leg­is­la­ture’s Joint Fi­nance Com­mit­tee to fun­nel money now be­ing spent on ma­jor high­way ex­pan­sions into im­prov­ing roads less trav­eled. They en­cour­aged res­i­dents to call or e-mail their state leg­is­la­tors.

Of the state’s to­tal 113,490 miles of lo­cal road, 15,714 miles, or 14 per­cent, are clas­si­fied as “failed, very poor or poor” by the DOT. More than 27,000 miles, or 24 per­cent, are con­sid­ered “fair,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Ru­ral roads are in worse shape than those in ur­ban ar­eas, with 44 per­cent need­ing an im­me­di­ate fix, com­pared to 31 per­cent in ur­ban ar­eas.

Break­ing it down by re­gion, north­west­ern Wis­con­sin mo­torists fare the worst, with 45 per­cent of lo­cal roads need­ing at­ten­tion.

Al­most 7,000 miles of the to­tal 31,314 miles of lo­cal roads in Ash­land, Bar­ron, Bay­field, Buf­falo, Bur­nett, Chippewa, Clark, Dou­glas, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jack­son, Pepin, Pierce, Polk, Rusk, Sawyer, St. Croix, Tay­lor, Trem­pealeau and Wash­burn coun­ties are rated “failed, very poor or poor.”

That’s com­pared to 40 per­cent in north-cen­tral Wis­con­sin, 38 per­cent in south­west Wis­con­sin, 32 per­cent in south­east Wis­con­sin and 31 per­cent in north­east Wis­con­sin.

The rea­son for these rel­a­tively high per­cent­ages is lo­cal units of gov­ern­ment de­pend on state re­im­burse­ment to help cover the cost of re­con­struc­tion, and they’re not get­ting it, ac­cord­ing to Steve Hiniker of 1,000 Friends of Wis­con­sin.

He said fix­ing lo­cal roads is im­por­tant not only for tourism and com­merce but for safety rea­sons.

“Every jour­ney starts and ends on a lo­cal road,” he said.

Gas taxes col­lected lo­cally are sent to the state, with up to 85 per­cent of lo­cal road re­pair sup­posed to be re­im­bursed, “but we’re nowhere near that,” he said.

While state as­sis­tance to work on lo­cal roads and bridges fell 45 per­cent be­tween 2000 and 2013, the state has been pump­ing some 45 per­cent more money into ma­jor high­way ex­pan­sion projects that may not even be needed, the groups said.

In 2013, 90 per­cent of the miles of lo­cal roads in need of re­pair divvied up about $562 mil­lion from the state. Spend­ing per mile that year was al­most $5,000 for lo­cal roads, com­pared to al­most $130,000 for high­ways.

While ma­jor high­way projects in south­ern Wis­con­sin get funded, he said, north­ern Wis­con­sin res­i­dents have long been await­ing an ex­pan­sion of High­way 2 be­tween Su­pe­rior and Hur­ley.

“The re­port is not meant to be crit­i­cal of lo­cal gov­ern­ments’ abil­ity to re­pair roads,” Hiniker said.

Prop­erty tax freezes and de­clin­ing re­im­burse­ments have chal­lenged lo­cal gov­ern­ments, he said, so the so­lu­tion is “not to call city hall” but to con­tact state leg­is­la­tors.

“We hope lo­cal gov­ern­ments will join in the ef­fort to claim what is theirs,” he said. “The prob­lem is if we con­tinue to ex­pand, we will con­tinue to bor­row and will have less money for main­tain­ing more roads in the fu­ture.”

The state will ei­ther have to dra­mat­i­cally raise taxes or “al­most lit­er­ally aban­don high­ways,” Hiniker said.

Shortchang­ing aid for lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture has been a “bi­par­ti­san trend,” said Peter Skopec of WisPIRG, a con­sumer ad­vo­cacy group.

He said the state is in­vest­ing heav­ily in “big-ticket” high­way re­pair and ex­pan­sion projects while al­low­ing lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture to crum­ble.

Three-fourths of the money in Gov. Scott Walker’s pro­posed 2015-16 ex­ec­u­tive bud­get for “mega-projects” would be bor­rowed, he said.

The bud­get in­cludes $720 mil­lion over the bi­en­nium, or $360 mil­lion per year, in aid to lo­cal roads – down from $361 mil­lion per year in 2013-14. Lo­cal trans­porta­tion aids dropped from $441 mil­lion in 2000 to $388 mil­lion in 2013.

The bud­get in­cludes $1.3 bil­lion in bor­row­ing for state trans­porta­tion spend­ing, much of it go­ing to big high­way projects in south­east Wis­con­sin, Skopek said.

“Bor­row­ing in this bud­get is out of con­trol,” he said. “We’re putting a lot of money on this state’s credit card for things that we don’t ac­tu­ally need.”

A WisPIRG re­port last year found that sim­ply re­pair­ing four ma­jor road projects in­stead of ex­pand­ing them would leave enough money in the state’s trans­porta­tion fund to im­ple­ment all rec­om­men­da­tions of the Trans­porta­tion Pol­icy and Fi­nance Com­mis­sion.

For just over $1 bil­lion, Wis­con­sin could im­ple­ment all the rec­om­men­da­tions of the com­mis­sion, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing lo­cal road re­pair fund­ing, tran­sit, bi­cy­cle and pedes­trian in­fra­struc­ture and in­vest­ing in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of state-owned roads for the next 10 years, Skopek said.

So-called “un­nec­es­sary” projects in­clude the $480 mil­lion I-94 ex­pan­sion in Mil­wau­kee, he said. While the DOT had pre­dicted 23 per­cent more traf­fic along that route from 2012-2040, traf­fic was down 8 per­cent from 2000-2012.

Skopec said the DOT is us­ing out­dated num­bers to jus­tify ex­pan­sion across the state when re­pairs likely would be suf­fi­cient.

“We should be re­pair­ing high­ways rather than ex­pand­ing them like (the DOT) al­ways as­sumes we should do,” he said.

The state wouldn’t have to tax and spend more to al­le­vi­ate Wis­con­sin’s trans­porta­tion cri­sis, he said, adding, “We just need to re-pri­or­i­tize.”