Just Fix It Wisconsin

Craig Thompson: Statewide, the story is the same: Fix the roads 6/6/2016

6/5/2016, La Crosse Tribune –  During the past several weeks, the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin hosted six community discussions about local transportation concerns throughout the state.

We held sessions in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Janesville and Wausau.

Businesses, farmers, health-care providers and local government officials across the state showed up and had stories to tell and perspectives to share about how transportation affects their regions.

While each part of Wisconsin has its own characteristics, economic drivers and set of issues, what we heard was remarkably consistent:

  • Reliability of the system is key to businesses competitiveness.
  • It is not an “either-or.” Wisconsin’s transportation system is a network — each component is essential.
  • Our transportation infrastructure is in disrepair.
  • Local governments are forced to do “work-arounds,” which are not ideal, due to insufficient state funding.

It may be intuitive that transportation affects businesses’ bottom line, but hearing specific examples from company representatives brought the point home. Kwik Trip has had to implement shorter intervals between maintenance on their vehicles due to road problems. The Interstate-39/90 corridor was called Van Galder Bus lines’ lifeline. Frito Lay’s sales are jeopardized if they fail to hit a one-hour window with their deliveries. And a representative from Blaine’s Farm & Fleet said the safety of his drivers keeps him up at night.

Farmers repeatedly shared stories of having their routes increased significantly due to bridges and roads that are now weight restricted. Timber producers are facing similar challenges.

Story after story confirmed what we learned in a recent report from TRIP, a national transportation research group that found Wisconsin roads are in tough shape. It’s also why the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance gave our roads a “D” — the lowest grade on their 2015 report card.

From local government officials we heard an all too consistent story as well: Due to a lack of state funding, many have increased their reliance on bonding to simply try and keep up. If it wasn’t increasing bonding, it was increasing the property tax or in some cases a local wheel tax. A city of Marshfield official discussed an upcoming referendum to exceed the property tax limit and increase property taxes by more than 10 percent to try and address several specific road projects. A town of Lisbon official in Waukesha County shared a story about how residents showed up at the annual meeting and voted for the most aggressive option, which included bonding for $8 million in road repairs over the next two years. That $8 million is approximately twice the town’s $4.5 million operating budget.

The other theme that was consistent was frustration. We heard business leaders and local government officials say, “It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Other states have come to agreement on a solution to their transportation challenges. More than 20 states in the last several years have passed sustainable statewide transportation packages. Our neighbors in Michigan and Iowa are two of the more recent examples.

Listening to stories of Wisconsin businesses hampered because of deteriorating transportation infrastructure was difficult. Hearing local officials talk about the piecemeal solutions they are forced to come up with wasn’t any better.

In Wisconsin, we pay significantly less in our transportation user fees — meaning our combined vehicle registration fees and gas taxes — than any of our neighboring states. After listening to the effects on our business community and our citizens, the old adage of “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind.

It’s time to Just Fix It Wisconsin.

Craig Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

Note: This piece also ran in the Chippewa Herald, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Janesville Gazette, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tomah Journal, Sun Prairie Star and other outlets.