Rural townships face shrinking support for road maintenance

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Rural towns are facing a transportation crunch triggered by shifting state priorities, heavier trucks and equipment, and changing demographics.

Early estimates suggest the transportation fund will face a $650-million gap in the 2015- 2017 biennium, but rural townships are also concerned about getting what they see as their fair share of state transportation dollars.

The winners of the November election will be facing a call for additional tax dollars for transportation needs. Most candidates would rather not talk about increasing vehicle registration fees or increasing the state’s 30.9 cent per gallon gasoline tax.

More major borrowing – a staple of transportation funds in recent years – appears unlikely. By the year 2023 interest alone on highway bonds could take 24 percent of the state transportation money.

On the November statewide ballot is a constitutional amendment that would prohibit state transportation revenues being used for other purposes. It is expected to be approved by the voters. But the amendment does not resolve the looming issues of the near future.

The total of state fees and taxes on an average Wisconsin vehicle is $254 which is lower than neighboring states, according to a report prepared for town governments. The report cites costs in neighboring states at $318 in Illinois, $352 in Michigan, $416 for Iowa, and $470 in Minnesota.

One suggestion being floated is to designate the sales tax collected on automotive sales and repairs. That would effectively divert money from the state’s general fund – which has a projected $1.8 billion structural deficit – and use it on roads and highways.

But even if additional funds are raised, a major issue is the share that will be allocated to poor rural counties, most of them in the northern part of the state. Those counties have felt a shift in state priorities toward major highway projects in urban areas in the last quarter-century, according to Thomas Harnisch, who lobbies for town governments.

Towns that are near the new four-lane highways have a “distinct advantage for economic and community development,” he said in his report.

In 1993 some 36.2 percent of state transportation monies were used to fund local roads with town and county governments getting $1,100 per mile. By 2015 the state will pay $2,202 per mile, but that will be 24.5 percent of the state funds.

How did this shift occur? Harnisch said the road builders have been major contributors to legislative and gubernatorial campaigns.

There are 81,711 miles of roads in Wisconsin with 61,979 being town roads. About 60 percent of the town roads have hard surfaces with 40 percent being gravel or “worse,” he said.

The rural roads also are experiencing heavier farm-related vehicles and the impact of expanded mining activities.

Excessive overweight trucks cut the life of these town roads at a much faster rate, according to Harnisch. New demands on rural roads include heavier vehicles for logging, mining and agriculture.

To qualify for state aid a town must meet the legal requirements that roads be safe and passable.

The property tax is used to help meet the requirements. Failure to meet the requirement opens the door to damage suits in case of injuries.

The changing demographics in rural Wisconsin also are part of the concern. Population is declining, poverty remains high, and per capita income is lower than elsewhere in the state. By 2025 more than a quarter of the population in 17 rural counties will be senior citizens.

But more help to maintain town roads isn’t as attractive to most politicians as is cutting the ribbons on big highway projects in urban areas.


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