By State Senator Julie Lassa
Not long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that transportation would become a hot topic in Wisconsin politics. But the deteriorating state of our roads and bridges, and the failure of politicians in Madison to agree on effective solutions, has made the issue unavoidable.
Over the past several months, I’ve received resolutions from many of the counties, cities, towns, and villages in the 24th District calling on the governor and Legislature to agree to a solution to repair local roads. Local governments are so desperate that they have cut back to 80- to 100- year road replacement schedules, and are considering such drastic measures as reverting paved roads to gravel or instituting wheel taxes.
It’s no wonder that local governments are clamoring for a solution. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Wisconsin’s roads are the third worst in the nation. Nearly three quarters of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition. This is a problem beyond just having to get your wheels realigned after hitting one too many potholes in your vehicle. Poor road conditions contribute to traffic accidents, and make it harder for farms and businesses to get their products to market. One of the top factors companies take into account when they consider locating facilities is the quality of transportation infrastructure. The state of our roads may be contributing to the fact that Wisconsin has been slower to recover after the global recession than other states.
According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state needs $939 million more just to pay for road projects that already have been approved. That is a lot of money, so it was surprising to hear Governor Walker’s recent announcement that his next biennial state budget will actually cut the state’s investment in transportation funding. And while his budget will shift some funds from major highway projects to local transportation aids, it will do little to make an impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars in overdue road maintenance projects local communities currently face. Delaying these repair and replacement projects will only make them more expensive when they are finally started. Meanwhile, a growing share of our transportation spending must go to pay the interest on the state’s past borrowing. Even some Republican legislators have said that this course is unsustainable; we can’t just keep kicking the can down the same pothole-filled road.
It’s time for Governor Walker and the Legislature to get serious about finding an effective long-term solution to our transportation infrastructure crisis. One thing we could do is give transportation measures separate legislative consideration rather than including them in the full state budget. This would make it easier for lawmakers from both parties to hammer out an agreement that provides adequate funding for roads without continuing to rely on excessive borrowing.
One way or another, the time to come up with a sustainable plan to fix Wisconsin’s roads is now. The status quo of neglect has given the state some of the worst roads in the nation. Wisconsin has gotten to the point where we either have to get used to driving on pothole-filled roads, or state leaders will have to find a long-term solution to fix them.