Horrible. That’s a common epithet applied by local drivers to their experience when driving La Crosse’s La Crosse Street. And it is. But for those of us who travel about Wisconsin, there are equally horrible driving experiences to be had on Wisconsin’s badly deteriorated roads.
Take Hwy. 173 from Hwy. 21 to the intersection with Hwy. 80 near Babcock, for example. Gretchen and I have been driving that 20-mile diagonal stretch for many years on our way to visit with family in Shawano northwest of Green Bay. The wild lands that the road traverses are beautiful at any time of year and the drive has become a favorite ... until recently.
On our most recent drive along the arrow-straight road, which was built on the bed of a former railway through the marshy terrain, we vowed we’d not drive it again until it gets fixed. Rutted with broken asphalt and scattered potholes, the time saved simply wasn’t worth the rattle and risk to vehicle and jangled nerves.
Asked in a telephone call about the condition of the highway, David Ohnstad, Monroe County highway commissioner, agreed that it was “pretty rough.” The county will be doing some temporary paver patching on its part of the route this summer. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation plans to improve 19.36 miles of the road through Monroe and Juneau counties in 2020, he said.
If there were unlimited resources available, the road may have already been done by now, Ohnstad said. More funding available to meet the many demands for road work would “certainly make (the improvements) more timely,” he added.
And there’s the rub that legislators and the governor are having now as the state budget nears completion: how to, as the governor put it recently, “fix the damn roads.”
For Hwy. 173, the cost is $7 million to $8 million for “milling and repaving the existing deteriorated pavement to improve safety and operations and extend the life of the existing roadway surface,” according to DOT handout prepared for a public information meeting earlier this year.
The 173 repair is but a drop in the bucket toward filling the needs of the state’s roads, according to a number of assessments that rank Wisconsin poorly among the states for its roads.
Six years ago, a legislative commission reported on its two-year study of the state’s transportation woes with a warning that “continuing the status quo level of investment will result in serious worsening in the condition and safety of state highways, increased urban highway congestion and reduced service levels for public transit.”
That recommendation included increasing a variety of user fees, including a 5-cent increase in the gas tax to pay for projects during the next decade. The recommendations went nowhere. Meanwhile, the state’s roads continued to deteriorate and Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature and the Republican governor kicked the can down the road and added to the size of the transportation funding debt, now some 25 percent of the transportation budget.
There was an election in 2018 and Gov. Tony Evers campaigned on fixing the state’s roads in part by raising the gas tax. He won that election. Yet the Republicans remain in denial about the outcome, and refuse to budge on a gas tax, the most reasonable, efficient way to provide long-term financing for roads and bridges.
Police and firefighters called on the Legislature last week to address Wisconsin’s road funding needs. Their association representatives said that the state’s poor road conditions were putting public safety at risk and urged a “common sense” solution.
Their press conference presentations made it clear that Hwy. 173 isn’t an isolated condition. Dane County Deputy Jim Brigham said poor road conditions on U.S. Hwy. 151 near Sun Prairie had caused hundreds of tire blowouts, some of which had caused accidents, according to an account on Wisconsin Public Radio.
Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman noted that his officers had to consider road conditions and their speed when picking a route to an emergency. Road conditions could delay their response, he said.
Republicans have responded with a funding proposal that relies heavily on increasing fees — both title transfer and registration — thus excusing out-of-state road users from shouldering part of the road costs. And their plan dodges a gas tax increase and its longer-term approach to the state’s transportation needs.
Evers said when he introduced his state budget that “The stakes are too high to ignore Wisconsin’s infrastructure crisis. It is time to stop kicking the can down the road.”
He’s right. It’s time to fund a fix for the damn roads. We can complain about paying more in gas taxes, but that’s the cost to correct the years of neglect demonstrated in roads like Hwy. 173. Republican legislators clearly don’t want to own up to the fact they had many years to fix the problem ... and didn’t.