8/27/18 – The La Crosse Tribune

What’s the biggest problem facing the city of La Crosse?

That’s easy. Most folks — whether they live here or visit — say our streets need a lot of repair and reconstruction.

But how to pay for that work? That’s a more difficult question.

It’s clear the city will never catch up with the mounting street problems without spending more money.

Mayor Tim Kabat is proposing a $25 annual wheel tax for vehicles owners whose vehicles reside in La Crosse, and we think it’s the right approach.

The city maintains about 200 miles of streets.

Because of dwindling state aid in recent years and rising costs, the city has been repairing three to four miles of street each year.

That’s not nearly enough to keep up.

So, why doesn’t the city merely reprioritize spending and devote more money to street repair?

That’s exactly what’s happening.

The city spent $4.8 million in 2016; $7.5 million in 2017; and will spend $9.8 million this year.

That means the city will repair about eight of those 200 miles this year.

The extra investment has come from spending down reserve funds, which sat at $19.2 million in 2016; $13.1 million in 2017; and $12.9 million in 2018.

But spending down reserve funds is prudent for only so long, and the city may have reached that point.

Revenue from a wheel tax would add $1.2 million to the street repair fund — and, by law, it can only be used for repairing streets.

That additional revenue means the city plans to repair six to seven miles of streets for the next few years.

The city also is planning to invest in some expensive street-repair equipment, and we wonder whether the equipment — and the cost — could be shared regionally.

While some have urged a lower wheel tax and some suggest higher, Kabat said a survey of Wisconsin municipalities shows the $25 fee is about average.

The tax would be placed on most cars and trucks registered in La Crosse, but there will be exemptions for vehicles of more than 8,000 pounds, plus motorcycles, mopeds, motorhomes and several other categories.

The proposed legislation also will end in five years unless reauthorized. If the city gets caught up on street repairs — and, if the state decides to dedicate more funding to such repairs — the city could end the tax. In fairness, we’re not sure that is likely.

For those who believe the city is wasting money on other spending, it’s important to note that the budget was $71.7 million in 2013 and $70.5 million for 2018. The tax levy has dropped during that period — in no small measure because of business expansion and neighborhood redevelopment.

And the mayor says he’s determined not to raise the levy and continue being fiscally responsible while repairing infrastructure that hasn’t received significant investment in the past 10 to 20 years, from Memorial Pool to the La Crosse Center.

Streets, obviously, aren’t the only city assets in need of repair.

Remember that beneath bumpy streets, you’ll often find water, sewer and stormwater lines that can be up to a century old. It doesn’t make sense to tear up the street without tearing up and replacing what’s beneath it. The mayor says the state only helps with stormwater line replacement.

As we’ve written before, we believe the mayor should continue to work with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to expedite such critical projects as La Crosse Street, a gateway to our community that is in embarrassing shape.