3/5/20, InBusiness Blog

Wisconsin has vibrant larger cities, picturesque rural towns, and communities of all types and sizes in between. This is one of the things that makes Wisconsin such a great place to live.

With family ties that often go back many generations, residents of these communities are passionate about their hometowns. Walk any small-town cemetery in Wisconsin and you are likely to see names that are still on signs above businesses on Main Street today.

But how do we help ensure these communities that are part of Wisconsin’s heritage not only survive, but thrive?

One of the ways, certainly, is to provide connections through a safe, efficient transportation network. These connections allow even the smallest communities to tap larger labor pools, draw tourists to their towns, and access the global economy. It’s about the first and last mile of any trip, state highways, the interstate system, public transportation, ports, airports, and freight rail. It’s about TIME: Transportation Investment Moves Everything — people, goods, and our economy.

Wisconsin’s rural roads have recently received national attention with a story in the New York Times. However, the problem of deteriorating transportation conditions has been decades in the making.

As Tom Bressner, executive director of the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, explained to me during an interview for the TDA On the Go podcast last fall, “When we talk about rural roads, the issue is the deterioration. We see so many cases now where you have to avoid certain bridges or certain roads. If that feed truck, or the milk truck, or that load of grain can’t cross that first bridge on a road in the middle of nowhere, you just took the efficiency out of the entire food chain.”

And it’s not just about agriculture. It’s tourism and manufacturing.

What often surprises me when traveling the state is that many great Wisconsin companies — leaders in their markets with worldwide manufacturing and distribution — are tucked away in some of Wisconsin’s smaller communities. For example, Greenheck, one of the 25 largest privately held companies in Wisconsin, has its worldwide headquarters in Schofield and employs 2,300 in the city and the surrounding communities. This locally owned manufacturing company offers the broadest range of reliable air movement, control, and conditioning equipment available.

As a recognition of the backlog of local transportation needs, the bipartisan Wisconsin 2019–21 biennial budget provided $75 million to local and tribal governments in one-time funding through the Multimodal Local Supplement (MLS) grant program. MLS funding was available for new projects statewide related to roads, bridges, railroads, transit capital and facility projects, bicycle and pedestrian accommodations, and harbors.

While a significant number of applications was expected, I think everyone was blown away by the final numbers. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), 1,596 eligible grant applications were submitted. The needs detailed in the applications total $1.47 billion.

“Our members were able to document their needs, and as you can see, those needs are real, and they are significant,” said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. “While we know this isn’t the comprehensive funding solution Wisconsin desperately needs, we are appreciative that the Legislature and governor agreed to create the program. Every little bit helps.”

Reading through the applications has been an eye-opening experience, and what strikes me most is just how essential each of the projects is to the economy of the local community.

Given the number of applications, the project selection process was very competitive, with a focus on measurable economic benefits. Stakeholders provided input through three local government committees, which met to score project applications.

WisDOT recently announced the awards.

The good news is that 152 projects will receive funding through the MLS grant program. Unfortunately, more than 1,400 local projects are left with an uncertain path forward as communities have few options to fund these kinds of projects.

For example, here in Dane County, while six projects received grants totaling more than $3.5 million, there are 58 projects with a price tag of more than $93 million that remain unaddressed.

Furthermore, we cannot overlook the fact that the local needs documented through the MLS applications are just the tip of the iceberg. We also have significant challenges to maintain and modernize our state highways, the interstate system, and other components of Wisconsin’s transportation system.

Even after the progress made in the 2019–21 budget, there is still a lot of work to do.

Wisconsin’s economy is built and grows one community at a TIME — Transportation Investment Moves Everything.

If the connection between transportation investment and economic development interests you, check out TDA’s new publication About TIME.