Roads are expensive but poor maintenance costs more

YOURCOUNTY
Jim Baumgart  Sheboygan County Supervisor

Wisconsin roads are a lifeline to a productive industrial/agriculture network, personal, work, and recreational travel, and a key to positive community growth. To highlight the importance, the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA), in their April 2013 monthly publication, stressed road issues in a number of different columns. In addition, they will, in cooperation with Northstar Economics, Inc., release a report showing the significant economic impact that the counties have with its maintenance activities on state and local transportation systems.

WCA points out that Wisconsin roads are great asset and counties are responsible for maintenance of more than 53,000 miles of state and local roadways that account for 77% of all vehicle miles traveled in Wisconsin. That investment, they report, in our state’s transportation infrastructure significantly impacts the overall economy and investment and that programs supported by the transportation fund are important to ensure the health of that system.

In the series of columns in the April issue, they raise a number of questions including some that this writer raised in a February, 2013 “Your County” column. Such as how to raise and pay for road and road maintenance when available transportation funds have decreased because of better auto and truck mileage, higher unemployment thus forcing less driving and less gas consumption, higher prices for gas/oil thus increasing the cost of snow removal, blacktop, and road salt, as well as increased staff costs (such as higher health insurance) and a host of other fiscal reasons. The end result - less road maintenance dollars means a negative impact on our state roads.

In another column, heavy trucks and their related impact on county highways are discussed. It points out that counties have certain powers and responsibilities allowed by statue to protect their county roads from increased size and weight of trucks that cause rapid road destruction and possible reimbursement action for damage. But that column stresses that counties need to have a plan to evaluate their roads, with good engineering and an action plan to provide solutions.

Mass transit systems were reviewed. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 48% of Wisconsin transit riders are headed to work; 23% to school, 18% to retail, tourism or recreational destinations and 10% to health care destinations. Interesting, this column is written by Steve Bass, Vice President, Government Affairs, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce - a business group that gains a major economic benefit by having good mass transit. But it could also have been written by a public who need the mass transit or by the people who work in or near the transit system.

Bass points out that transit saves taxpayers money by saving on roadways, bridges and maintenance. He also makes it clear that these systems cost taxpayers money because they require public subsidies but he clearly does not call into question its need, legitimacy or importance. Bass goes on to say transit is a key component of connecting workers to jobs, helps maintain central business districts in Wisconsin and keeps downtown’s thriving as centers of finance, commerce, retail and culture. And restricting transit funding, as was the case in the last state budget, makes things harder - what we need, he suggest, is to be wiser.

If I can generalize the approach the Wisconsin Counties Association was trying to promote in their April 2013 issue is that we need to fully understand the road/bridge/maintenance needs, costs, gas tax and other revenue, and plan a realistic approach that our state can take. Yes, roads cost money. But not taking care of our roads - that cost far more.


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