Just Fix It Wisconsin

Wausau Daily Herald Editorial: Will Wisconsin ever fix its roads? 6/3/2016

6/3/2016, Wausau Daily Herald – Mark my words: Marshfield is going to be a trendsetter for Wisconsin.

The city of fewer than 20,000 people is going to the voters in August with a referendum aimed at funding fixes to the city’s roads. The city’s taxpayers will decide on $12.5 million in spending that would amount to an 11 percent hike in local taxes aimed directly at infrastructure improvements.

Funding for roads is among the most popular types of government spending, but this is a big ask, and Marshfield city administrator Steve Barg acknowledged this week that it may be a tough sell. Barg spoke at a forum in Mosinee on Wisconsin’s transportation funding.

In the absence of some large overhaul of how the state pays for its roads, though, Marshfield doesn’t see an alternative.

“I’m not sure, really, that we have a great Plan B,” Barg said in response to a question about the city’s backup plan should voters reject the new taxes.

And since no such funding overhaul seems to be coming any time soon, lots and lots of other places could end up trying what Marshfield is doing: taking local road costs directly to referendum.

Barg spoke Wednesday morning on a roundtable discussion organized by the Transportation Development Association. (I was moderator of the discussion.) The event, part of a statewide push by the lobbying group, featured speakers and panelists representing towns and counties, cities and private industry. Its theme was “Just fix it!”

Then on Wednesday afternoon, the Wisconsin State Journal broke the news that state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb does not plan to ask in the next state budget for any new taxes or fee increases for infrastructure — “a move Gottlieb acknowledged would delay highway expansion projects and upkeep of all but the state’s most-traveled highways,” according to the report.

So, I guess, never mind about fixing it.

Obviously it is not quite that simple. There isn’t one single budget item that funds the care and maintenance of all Wisconsin’s roads. State resources are spent most directly on state highways; most funds for local road maintenance are passed through to counties and cities and townships via state aid. But state aid is been flat for a decade as costs have increased and infrastructure has deteriorated, forcing local governments to use local property taxes and other funding sources to pay for even the most basic infrastructure needs.

For a lot of Wisconsinites, a delay in highway expansion projects might seem like a reasonable trade if it came with a boost in state aid that would ensure local municipalities could patch up their potholes.

But it is hard to read Gottlieb’s statements as a suggestion that highway expansions are being put off in favor of boosted state aid for local roads. Instead, it was a signal that the Gov. Scott Walker administration is sticking with the status quo.

Walker himself weathered criticism back in January when he suggested that one solution to the state’s transportation deficit would be to spend less. If the state isn’t going to raise taxes and fees and lawmakers don’t want to borrow billions for roads, Walker told WisPolitics.com, then “you adjust what you spend it (state money) on, just like everything else in life.”

This was begging the question — by taking the impossibility of any tax or fee increases as a given, Walker assumed his conclusion — but Walker was not wrong. That would be one approach. For most Wisconsinites, the problem of deteriorating roads is experienced most on the local level. It’s potholes on your morning commute into the city; for industry, a major issue is which town roads are usable for heavy trucks on their way to the big highways. But local roads still languish. Walker and Gottlieb don’t want to reform the system. They just seem to wish everything could cost less. It’s not a very impressive plan.

At the Wednesday roundtable, Marathon County Highway Commissioner James Griesbach said the county’s roads ought to have about a 20-year lifespan, and the today the pace of repairs per year has the county stretching that to at least 30 years. For some Northwoods counties, Griesbach said, the cycle they are on at current funding levels is more like 100 or 200 years. What will be the condition of a rural road that hasn’t been fixed for more than a century?

At this rate, we may get to find out.