Just Fix It Wisconsin

The Road to Repair: County’s transportation system needs improvements, funding 9/1/2016

9/1/2016, Jackson County Chronicle – Jackson County Highway Commissioner Randy Anderson would like to see about 12 miles of county roads repaved each year.

The local transportation system needs it: Nearly one-fifth of the county’s 231 miles of highway are rated a three on a 10-point scale. Another large portion comes in at a five or six.

But the most the county can afford is 2.3 miles in projects a year due to local budget constraints and declining assistance from the state.

“Really, I would say, at best, our system would be rated fair,” said Anderson, who’s been Jackson County’s commissioner since 2009. “And it could even lean toward the poor side.

“We have some areas that need immediate attention that are not going to get immediate attention because we don’t have the funding. It’s not good for the motoring public right now. We absolutely need an infusion of funding so we can at least get our roads so that we would be set at, at least, fair condition.”

Jackson County has joined other county and local governments across the state in urging Wisconsin legislators to “Just Fix It,” a Transportation Development Association-developed campaign aimed at pushing for feasible ways to increase state aid to local governments to allow for needed repairs and projects.

County highway departments receive general transportation aid from the state – funds largely derived from registration fees and gas taxes – but it’s money that has “flatlined” at best over the past five years, Anderson said.

“We’ve got a political party that says no new taxes, and that doesn’t work here,” Jackson County Board Chair Ray Ransom said. “It looks like, going into 2017, we could do something with registration fees or add some gas tax – gas (price) is predicted to go down.

“What a great chance – nobody wants any new taxes, but we need to understand these roads aren’t going to fix themselves.”

The issues aren’t exclusive to the county highway system. Town officials also are grappling with limited ability to complete needed projects. The town of Garfield has been forced to convert back to some gravel-surface roadways because of financial limitations.

Garfield, like the county, has been able to conduct some major projects because of grants and funding from organizations like the Ho-Chunk Nation, but otherwise has limited ability, said longtime town Chair Steve Dickinsen.

“It’s been such a struggle to try to get anywhere. We made some headway about 15 years ago, and it’s hard to go backwards,” said Dickinsen, who also serves as District 2 state director for the Wisconsin Towns Association. “If it weren’t for grants, there wouldn’t be any kind of any major maintenance that goes on.”

The county is projected to receive about $810,000 in state general transportation aid for 2017 and plans to conduct 2.3 miles of resurfacing on Highway FF – one of roads rated in poor condition with several potholes and “alligator cracking” that creates a rough ride for motorists.

Last year the county utilized an extra $1 million in county fund balance and another $850,000 in Ho-Chunk Nation assistance to repair 9.7 miles of Highway P, a project needed for years.

This year, the county “only had enough” to conduct three miles of work – 1.6 miles on Highway G and 1.4 miles on Highway X, Anderson said.

The projected 2.3 miles of feasible yearly projects puts the county on a 100-year replacement cycle – about four times longer for resurfacing work than is ideal.

“It’s been deteriorating. We haven’t had a real increase in the county tax levy for highway … for over 10 years,” said Jackson County Board Supervisor Jeff Amo, who’s been chair of the highway committee for the past six years. “So we’re just doing less and less and less. Now it’s getting back to the point where it’s at 2.3 miles. That 100-year resurfacing schedule is not something to look forward to. That’s not going to work.”

Town governments also have grappled with the effects of flooding that washes out and damages roadways. Garfield last year suffered from a rain event that shut down nine major roads and incurred more than $150,000 in damages. This year, a major storm on Aug. 11 prompted more road closures but work has since been completed.

In Manchester, officials regularly deal with high water that covers a segment of Hawk Island Road. A project to raise the road is the ideal solution, but it’s one that currently involves too high a cost.

“Every time it floods, it takes out part of our road and we only can do so much with that because we don’t have the funding,” said Manchester Town Chair Danny Iverson. “It’s a never-ending battle with roads. Our township is in a lot better shape than what some townships are, but all in all, we just need more funding.”

Towns receive general state funding, and Manchester also benefits from a small amount from the county’s forestry department because of county forest logging work and related traffic that impacts its roads.

Still, the town ideally would have liked to conduct 13 road projects of different scopes this year but completed only five, said Iverson, who also serves on the county board.

“All in all, we did projects, but in reality we had to budget enough money to make it through this winter on sand, fuel for our trucks,” he said. “We have to try to budget as much as we can to roads so our people are safe.”

State Rep. Chris Danou, whose district encompasses a large portion of Jackson County, said he’s heard transportation concerns from constituents and highway department officials from across the 92nd Assembly District. He said he hopes to see a priority change in the Legislature to focus more on rural infrastructure and how to develop funding to support it, rather than initiatives like an ag and manufacturing tax credit that cut millions in tax revenues.

“We’re really at a point right now in Wisconsin where we’ve got to take a hard look at want we do to maintain and improve rural infrastructure,” he said. “That’s the fundamental problem – there’s a political unwillingness to do the right thing here.”

Officials hope the push from municipalities from across the state will prompt discussion and solutions.

“My hope is that the legislature develops a funding source that’s sustainable and can provide the counties with more general transportation aids so that we can get more miles reconstructed in a given year,” Anderson said. “I really believe the Just Fix It resolution and movement is necessary at this time to really get our legislators up to speed on our local roads.”

Dickinsen agreed.

“We’ve got to find a stream of revenue that everybody can agree on,” he said. “We do have a lot of support locally. I do want to compliment (rural legislators) – they’re doing the best they can. They’re a minority in Madison.”