State keeps eye on the big roads not on the potholes

As Others See It
Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Wisconsin has road problems that may be costing you more in automotive repairs, according to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities

It’s a big issue for local offi cials who have 103,000 miles of roads and streets to maintain. That compares to the 11,800 miles of Interstate and state highways which the state Department of Transportation maintains.

Part of the Wisconsin road picture is historic. Paved roads were helpful in getting milk from the dairy farms to processing locations. Aid from state government played a role in helping local offi cials maintain those roads.

The bulk of money in the state transportation fund comes from fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. Fifteen years, ago 40 percent of the state transportation fund was returned to municipal and county governments. Now, less than one-third of the state transportation fund is returned to local government.

Over the last five years, annual revenue from fees and taxes has increased just three-tenths of 1 percent. The recent recession contributed to a decline in travel and more fuel-efficient vehicles played a role. Meanwhile, road repair costs continued to escalate.

Asphalt prices were increasing 11 percent annually on average. That’s a major bump for local governments struggling to fill potholes after harsh winters.

Part of the drop in help for local officials reflects a shift in priorities toward major highway construction projects. Critics have suggested politicians of both parties have grown fond of fancy, multi-lane interstate projects with their heavy bonding.

A 2012 study showed that 35 states have roads that are in better condition than those in Wisconsin. The situation was worse in Wisconsin’s urban areas, according to the League of Municipalities. Just 15 percent of the highway system in those areas was rated “good.”

Then, a 2013 study showed that more than half of the roads in the Milwaukee area were in poor condition. It suggested that the road conditions cost Milwaukee-area drivers an average of about $700 per year in vehicle repairs.

Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Municipalities, said local officials are caught between declining state and federal funding and the inability to increase local taxes and fees to adequately fund transportation needs. Writing in the League’s January magazine, he warned of what could happen.

“If nothing is done, state transportation funding could be short between $2 billion and $6 billion over the next 10 years,” he wrote.

“Wisconsin’s economy relies heavily on transportation: manufacturing, farming and trucking claim a larger share of employment and wages than in any other state, save Indiana,” he wrote. “In addition, good roads boost Wisconsin’s $11-billion tourist industry.”

Witynski suggests state government might want to look at regional approaches to raising the necessary money. “There are economies of scale in investments, as well as economic and social impacts, regardless of jurisdiction.”

Local governments already have the power to impose a wheel tax on vehicles licensed in their jurisdictions. But few local governments have opted for the approach. Citizens often are furious when someone suggests a local tax to fill the potholes.

Other possible revenue raisers include a personal property tax imposed on vehicles, a local gas tax or even a local sales tax, Witynski suggests. But the experience with a modest wheel tax shows these approaches could cause large political storms.

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