Local roads throughout Wisconsin, but especially those in the state’s northwestern region, are on a collision course for disaster, according to a new analysis.
More than 42,000 miles of local roads in the state require “immediate repair,” based on data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, according to study results shared March 24 by members of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, along with the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group and the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter.
The groups called on the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to funnel money now being spent on major highway expansions into improving roads less traveled. They encouraged residents to call or e-mail their state legislators.
Of the state’s total 113,490 miles of local road, 15,714 miles, or 14 percent, are classified as “failed, very poor or poor” by the DOT. More than 27,000 miles, or 24 percent, are considered “fair,” according to the report.
Rural roads are in worse shape than those in urban areas, with 44 percent needing an immediate fix, compared to 31 percent in urban areas.
Breaking it down by region, northwestern Wisconsin motorists fare the worst, with 45 percent of local roads needing attention.
Almost 7,000 miles of the total 31,314 miles of local roads in Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Buffalo, Burnett, Chippewa, Clark, Douglas, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson, Pepin, Pierce, Polk, Rusk, Sawyer, St. Croix, Taylor, Trempealeau and Washburn counties are rated “failed, very poor or poor.”
That’s compared to 40 percent in north-central Wisconsin, 38 percent in southwest Wisconsin, 32 percent in southeast Wisconsin and 31 percent in northeast Wisconsin.
The reason for these relatively high percentages is local units of government depend on state reimbursement to help cover the cost of reconstruction, and they’re not getting it, according to Steve Hiniker of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin.
He said fixing local roads is important not only for tourism and commerce but for safety reasons.
“Every journey starts and ends on a local road,” he said.
Gas taxes collected locally are sent to the state, with up to 85 percent of local road repair supposed to be reimbursed, “but we’re nowhere near that,” he said.
While state assistance to work on local roads and bridges fell 45 percent between 2000 and 2013, the state has been pumping some 45 percent more money into major highway expansion projects that may not even be needed, the groups said.
In 2013, 90 percent of the miles of local roads in need of repair divvied up about $562 million from the state. Spending per mile that year was almost $5,000 for local roads, compared to almost $130,000 for highways.
While major highway projects in southern Wisconsin get funded, he said, northern Wisconsin residents have long been awaiting an expansion of Highway 2 between Superior and Hurley.
“The report is not meant to be critical of local governments’ ability to repair roads,” Hiniker said.
Property tax freezes and declining reimbursements have challenged local governments, he said, so the solution is “not to call city hall” but to contact state legislators.
“We hope local governments will join in the effort to claim what is theirs,” he said. “The problem is if we continue to expand, we will continue to borrow and will have less money for maintaining more roads in the future.”
The state will either have to dramatically raise taxes or “almost literally abandon highways,” Hiniker said.
Shortchanging aid for local infrastructure has been a “bipartisan trend,” said Peter Skopec of WisPIRG, a consumer advocacy group.
He said the state is investing heavily in “big-ticket” highway repair and expansion projects while allowing local infrastructure to crumble.
Three-fourths of the money in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-16 executive budget for “mega-projects” would be borrowed, he said.
The budget includes $720 million over the biennium, or $360 million per year, in aid to local roads – down from $361 million per year in 2013-14. Local transportation aids dropped from $441 million in 2000 to $388 million in 2013.
The budget includes $1.3 billion in borrowing for state transportation spending, much of it going to big highway projects in southeast Wisconsin, Skopek said.
“Borrowing in this budget is out of control,” he said. “We’re putting a lot of money on this state’s credit card for things that we don’t actually need.”
A WisPIRG report last year found that simply repairing four major road projects instead of expanding them would leave enough money in the state’s transportation fund to implement all recommendations of the Transportation Policy and Finance Commission.
For just over $1 billion, Wisconsin could implement all the recommendations of the commission, including increasing local road repair funding, transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and investing in the rehabilitation of state-owned roads for the next 10 years, Skopek said.
So-called “unnecessary” projects include the $480 million I-94 expansion in Milwaukee, he said. While the DOT had predicted 23 percent more traffic along that route from 2012-2040, traffic was down 8 percent from 2000-2012.
Skopec said the DOT is using outdated numbers to justify expansion across the state when repairs likely would be sufficient.
“We should be repairing highways rather than expanding them like (the DOT) always assumes we should do,” he said.
The state wouldn’t have to tax and spend more to alleviate Wisconsin’s transportation crisis, he said, adding, “We just need to re-prioritize.”