Just Fix It Wisconsin

La Crosse Tribune Editorial: It’s time to fix our road problem 5/23/2016

5/23/2016, La Crosse Tribune – If Wisconsin is open for business, we’d better figure out how to raise more money to fix the roads.

In fact, a panel of local business people and public officials concluded last week that poor roads are already costing businesses money and putting a damper on economic development.

It’s time for leadership and political will in the Capitol in Madison — and some resolve to just fix it.

What do poor roads cost?

TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research firm, estimates that deficient roads cost Wisconsin drivers $6 billion per year.

According to TRIP, each driver in Milwaukee and Madison pays more than $2,000 each year because of poor roads.

Statewide, an estimated 42 percent of roads are in mediocre or poor condition and 14 percent of Wisconsin bridges need repair or modernization.

When it comes to jobs, nearly 1.4 million jobs in Wisconsin are tied to transportation-dependent industries.

Imagine the challenge for a business like La Crosse-based Kwik Trip, which sends trucks to its 500 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa every day.

Those deliveries of everything from fuel to snacks traveled 26 million miles last year — more than half of those in Wisconsin.

Jeff Reichling, Kwik Trip’s superintendent of petroleum transportation, sees the toll on vehicles — shorter intervals between maintenance, more damage to shocks, tires, axles and frames because of road problems.

“This will only continue to grow as a problem,” he said.

That’s not good for businesses such as Gundersen Health System, which operates as the largest employer in its 19-county, tri-state region, or Organic Valley, which has 300 to 400 loads either coming or going from its Cashton facility each week.

The panel spoke at a forum in Onalaska sponsored by the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

La Crosse County takes care of 285 miles of roads — and 165 miles need at least reconditioning, county highway commissioner Ron Chamberlain said.

The county has identified $90 million needed to fix its trunk highways. Unfortunately, it has identified how to pay for only $22 million of that work.

In Farmington, there’s a road that runs through the county forest that harkens back to a time before the automobile came along.

As town Chair Michael Hesse told the panel, the town has a stretch of nearly a mile of Radcliffe Road on the county’s northern fringe that is made of dirt.

Every six weeks or so, depending on usage and weather conditions, the town has to get the road grader out and smooth out Radcliffe Road. The town also has to use the grader for gravel roads, albeit less frequently.

Sadly, it’s becoming more and more difficult for local government to deal with funding problems.

Since 2011, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Legislature has passed 128 measures that have stuck local government with unfunded mandates or taken control from local government.

While state leaders have touted tax-saving measures, don’t be fooled that the cost hasn’t shifted from one taxpayer pocket to the other.

The taxpayers certainly aren’t fooled.

In the wake of state funding cuts to education, taxpayers in a number of school districts have voted to raise taxes to increase funding for local schools.

Consider that in 2000, taxpayers in Wisconsin school districts approved local school referendums on a 50-50 basis. In 2011, that approval rating rose to 70 percent. Last year, that rose to 81 percent.

Remember: These are local taxpayers voting to charge themselves more and raise taxes for local education.

Taxpayers really do understand the value of good roads, good schools and other critical needs.

And, in the case of roads, not all of the funding comes from state taxpayers — and more creative funding can and should be explored, especially as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

During last week’s forum on roads sponsored by the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, said: “The public understands there’s an issue. I think they are ready for a fix. Businesses are looking for a fix.”

But it won’t happen without honesty and courage.

We’re long overdue.

Note: This item also ran in the Wisconsin State Journal.