Frustrated by the Wisconsin legislature’s unwillingness to provide adequate transportation funding, local governments are preparing to take their case to the public by highlighting some of their worst crumbling roads and bridges.
A joint campaign of the Transportation Development Association and the state’s municipal governments, “Just Fix It,” was rolled out Tuesday at the annual convention of the Wisconsin Counties Association in La Crosse.
Wisconsin faces a projected funding shortfall of more than $15 billion over the next decade just to maintain the current transportation system, but TDA executive director Craig Thompson said big numbers aren’t effective in getting attention.
“Sometimes what we need beyond the numbers and the data is what’s behind that,” he said. “We may not always believe the numbers, but we know what we drive over.”
Thompson showed a slide of a Washburn County bridge with concrete crumbling to expose rebar.
“We’re better than this,” he said.
Another slide showed alligatored pavement on La Crosse County Highway YY, a 41-year-old stretch of road that isn’t scheduled for resurfacing until 2020 — if the county can come up with the money.
Even a decade beyond its expected life, it’s not the county’s worst highway, said highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain. More than half of the 285 miles of county roads are in need of replacement: HD, DS, SN, B, J, PI, TT, GI, N, H.
“You can just about go through the alphabet,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain estimates the county has about $90 million in current needs. Last year’s budget was about $5.68 million.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Chamberlain said, noting that roads continue to deteriorate — even faster because the county can’t afford the proper maintenance to make them last 30 years.
All told, local governments are responsible for more than 100,000 miles of roads, which cost upwards of $400,000 per mile to replace. The state is responsible for another 11,800 miles.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates 70 percent of the state’s roads are in mediocre to poor condition. Only Illinois and Connecticut rank lower.
“I think you’re really seeing it at all levels,” Thompson said. “There’s towns that have replacement schedules of never.”
Thompson traces the problem to 2005, when the state stopped raising the gas tax with inflation. Local governments have stepped in, but with new state-imposed levy limits, Thompson said, “there’s no more room for them to go.”
Thompson said overwhelming voter approval of a 2014 referendum preventing the legislature from raiding the transportation fund was a tremendous victory.
But the momentum did not carry through the 2015 budget process, which he called “a tremendous missed opportunity.”
Gov. Scott Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion; lawmakers authorized up to $850 million but didn’t make up the difference.
Using what Thompson called a grassroots campaign, TDA — with help from county, municipal and town government organizations — will highlight some of the state’s worst roads in an effort to turn attention to the issue before the 2017 budget cycle.
There is no shortage of data or studies, Thompson said, just money.