WEST SALEM — About two dozen local officials bounced around some of the county’s bumpiest roads Tuesday in a West Salem school bus to highlight a problem most users know all too well.
The bus, carrying county, city, town and school leaders, headed out of West Salem on County Road M, which La Crosse County has identified as in need of repair.
“I can’t tell you when we’re going to do it,” said Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain. “We haven’t identified a funding source.”
With more than $100 million in identified needs and a budget of just $6.5 million, Chamberlain said the county has been creative in searching out grants and other alternate funding sources.
“We have turned over about every rock there is to turn over,” he said.
But it only goes so far.
Rough roads aren’t just an inconvenience, according to the Transportation Development Association: They cost time and put increased wear and tear on vehicles.
With just 1,500 miles, the Thomas bus is the district’s newest, but transportation director Rick Kline said keeping it rolling for the next two decades is a bigger challenge with today’s roads, which take their toll on tires and suspensions, not to mention lights and mirrors that get bounced off or thermal paned windows that cost $60 to $150 to replace.
“It’s pretty tired by the time it reaches that,” Kline said.
Last year state legislators approved an extra $40 million in aid for counties and municipal governments, the largest bump Chamberlain can remember. The county’s portion of that was enough to pave a quarter-mile of road.
“The reality is, it’s not significant,” Chamberlain said.
For town governments, the situation is even more dire. Farmington town Chairman Mike Hesse has a budget of just $117,000 to maintain some 40 miles of road. To replace a single bridge with something wide enough to accommodate modern farm equipment could cost up to $90,000.
“Structures like this we just have to live with,” he said.
Tuesday’s bus ride was the first of several such tours planned by the Transportation Development Association, an alliance of local government, businesses, road builders and other stakeholders.
TDA executive director Craig Thompson said the problem has grown worse since 2006, when Wisconsin lawmakers stopped adjusting the gasoline tax — one of the two main sources of transportation funding — to keep pace with inflation. And thanks to past borrowing, 18 cents of every transportation dollar now goes to pay back those loans.
At the same time, the nation’s interstate highway system is fast approaching the end of its 50-year useful life, putting an extra strain on those limited resources.
The TDA favors raising the gas tax and registration fees.
“The solution has to come from the state,” Thompson said. “There’s no way these communities are going to be able to solve it.”