Just Fix It Wisconsin

Onalaska panel ties transportation woes to economic development 5/18/2016

5/17/2016, La Crosse Tribune – Infrastructure and transportation problems have started to put a damper on economic development, area officials said Tuesday during a Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin panel session.

The seven-person panel at Stoney Creek Convention Center in Onalaska included representatives from Kwik Trip, Gundersen Health System and Dairyland Power Cooperative, as well as the town of Farmington, La Crosse County and the city of Onalaska. They discussed the impact the lack of infrastructure funding has on businesses development.

Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen called transportation “the bedrock” of the city’s efforts to bring in new large businesses.

“It’s a little hard to say, ‘We would love to have you here and this is a great place to do business,’ if they can’t get in and out of our community with their product and the products they are buying,’” Chilsen said. “That really strikes at the heart of what we do from an economic development standpoint.”

Chilsen has been getting first-hand experience with the planned Mayo Clinic Health System development on Sand Lake Road, which requires the city foot the bill to take the two-lane road up to four lanes and install roundabouts to allow for the increase in traffic.

“We’re going to have to raise that money in some fashion; however, with levy limits that means we’re going to spend more over here and everything else is going to have to be cut somewhere down the line,” Chilsen said. “With levy limits and road construction, it’s kind of a balancing act.”

The other major part is getting the workforce to and from their jobs each day, with people living in Onalaska and working elsewhere or living elsewhere and commuting to Onalaska.

“We have a movement of people and goods in and out of that community and without good roads, that becomes a problem,” Chilsen said.

With limits on how much municipalities can levy and cuts in state funding of infrastructure improvements, the number of good roads is going down.

Of La Crosse County’s 285 miles of roads, 165 miles need at least reconditioning, which involves grinding up and then resurfacing the road based on its previous design, according to county highway commissioner Ron Chamberlain. At least one county highway — Hwy. M between Hwys. B and O — needs reconstruction, which requires taking the entire road apart, fixing underlying issues and widening it to meet current standards.

“La Crosse County cannot afford to do reconstruction,” Chamberlain said.

The last reconstruction was the Highway OA project in 2013, which cost $5.2 million to reconstruct two miles of road. The 2.7 miles of Hwy. M need similar work, but the $4.7 million price tag is out of reach for the county levy or borrowing, Chamberlain said.

The county has identified $90 million in county trunk highway needs, $68 million of which remain unfunded.

Those rough roads can have a real impact on business’s bottom lines, according to Jeff Reichling, Kwik Trip’s superintendent of petroleum transportation.

“What you’re seeing is maintenance intervals moved up in some cases on larger components of vehicles,” Reichling said.

When it comes to components such as shocks, tires, axles and frames, the damage caused by failing infrastructure can be significant.

“We’re trying to keep vehicles as long because we’re seeing higher failure rates,” Reichling said. “This will only continue to grow as a problem.”

State Rep. Jill Billings, who sat in the panel’s audience, said the state has studied the issue for several years, but the Legislature needs to find “the political will,” to make the hard choices to invest in infrastructure, even if it requires an increase in the gas tax that would equal about $6 per car per month. She called the problem “sticky” but added that it’s the main concern of many of her constituents when she knocks on their doors.

“The public understands there’s an issue. I think they are ready for a fix. Businesses are looking for a fix,” Billings said.

Billings said the biggest challenge will be to find a solution that will get Gov. Scott Walker on board.