4/9/2017, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram – As legislators in Madison debate how to fill a $1 billion hole in the state’s transportation fund, cash-strapped local government officials are left with no choice but to use band-aids to patch the potholes riddling the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.
In the Trempealeau County town of Chimney Rock and many rural towns, that means saving money by converting once-paved streets into gravel roads.
In Chippewa County, it results in posting weight limits on dozens of deficient bridges to reduce the chances of them collapsing.
For many local governments, it simply means putting off road work they know should be done but can’t afford.
Such is the state of transportation funding in Wisconsin, where officials widely acknowledge the problem but can’t agree on a solution. The issue has caused a public rift between Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature over how to best solve the problem.
“I would like to see a long-term, sustainable funding solution for the transportation fund,” said St. Croix County highway commissioner Tim Ramberg, reflecting the view of highway commissioners throughout west-central Wisconsin contacted by the Leader-Telegram.
One reason the persistent issue has gotten so much attention this budget cycle is that the condition of Wisconsin’s roads and highways keeps deteriorating.
With 42 percent of its roads deemed in poor or mediocre condition, Wisconsin’s overall road pavement quality ranked the worst in the Midwest and 49th among the 50 states in 2016, according to annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report.
Walker’s proposed 2017-19 state budget would allocate $6.1 billion for transportation funding, including a $40 million increase in general transportation aids to counties and municipalities, and calls for $500 million in borrowing.
Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel recently told the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee that the proposal would address the state’s most urgent road construction needs.
But several lawmakers, including some of Walker’s fellow Republicans, have said it doesn’t offer a long-term solution and have expressed a willingness to explore other new revenue sources, including an increase in the gasoline tax — something Walker has insisted he would veto.
On Thursday, the Legislature’s GOP-controlled budget committee scrapped the governor’s road-funding proposal and said it was starting from scratch.
The procedural decision announced by co-leaders of the Joint Finance Committee is significant because it means they are ignoring Walker’s much-criticized approach to solving the projected $1 billion transportation shortfall. The panel could still go along with Walker’s call to borrow half a billion dollars and delay projects to plug the gap, but it will be harder than the usual practice of working off the governor’s proposal.
Doing what Walker wants on roads will now require a majority vote to add it to the budget, rather than a majority vote to remove it. That is a highly unusual break from tradition.
Even the much-discussed $1 billion shortfall in transportation funding refers to only the amount to maintain the current level of underfunding, said Daniel Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association and chairman of the Dunn County town of Sherman.
“If we were to do a needs-based analysis, that figure would be much, much higher,” Fedderly said. “Without any kind of significant, long-term sustainable funding source, we’re going to continue to struggle and continue to decline.”
A recent survey of Wisconsin counties by the highway association revealed that over the past five years highways are being rebuilt at a rate that would require nearly a 200-year life cycle, or four to five times longer than can reasonably be expected.
“It’s pretty obvious that roads aren’t going to last 200 years,” Fedderly said.
Likewise, counties are resurfacing roads at a rate that would require the highways to last 60 years instead of the 20 to 25 years that resurfaced roads are projected to last in reality, he said.
The frustration of highway commissioners, as they watch their counties’ roads deteriorate with no end in sight to the political stalemate, is evident.
For Eau Claire County, the proposed increase wouldn’t go far at all toward fixing its 421 miles of roads.
“Locally, we’re getting a 2 to 3 percent increase in general transportation aids, which isn’t even enough to chip-seal a quarter mile of road,” said Eau Claire County highway commissioner Jon Johnson.
With about 42 percent of its road surfaces rated poor or mediocre and on a downward spiral, the county has borrowed $6.5 million in each of the past three years in an effort to catch up. The extra money will enable the county to repave 23 miles of highway this year, exceeding its goal of 20 miles per year, Johnson said.
Dunn County highway commissioner Jesse Rintala said the county generally doesn’t reconstruct highways because of the high costs and instead relies on resurfacing, repaving and reconditioning projects. The county plans to work on about 12 miles of such projects this year, which is about 30 percent fewer miles than would be required to keep up with its 425 miles of county trunk highways based on a 25-year pavement life.
Chippewa County is fighting the same losing battle.
“At 489 centerline miles of county highways in Chippewa County, the goal would be to replace about 25 miles of pavement per year to maintain a 25-year pavement replacement cycle,” highway commissioner Brian Kelley said. “At the current funding levels, we are only able to replace 10 miles of pavement per year, which results in a 49-year pavement replacement cycle.”
As a result, despite doing lots of sealing and crack filling to buy time, he said, “We’re falling further and further behind.”
Randy Anderson, highway commissioner for Jackson and Clark counties, said in those counties the additional aid the governor is proposing “does not pave more than an additional half mile of county highway.”
In the Dunn County town of Sherman, the proposed increase would be about $3,000, which Fedderly described as “better than going backward” but only enough for plowing the roads after one snowfall.
Officials in Pepin and Pierce counties said they, too, are unable to keep up with their schedule for properly maintaining roads.
The master plan calls for Pepin County to pave six miles a year, but it has fallen behind by more than 29 miles in the past 15 years, highway commissioner John Hanz reported.
Similarly, Pierce County should be reconstructing just under five miles per year but hasn’t hit that mark for the past eight years, including three years in which it undertook no road reconstruction projects. The county plans to rebuild 1.5 miles this year and two next year, highway commissioner Chad Johnson said.
Rusk County is in the third year of a four-year catch-up plan in which it borrowed $8 million, enabling it to treat about 15 miles of road each year.
“Bonding can be a short-term answer or for a specific project, but is not sustainable,” highway commissioner Scott Emch said. “This why we have elected officials: They need to do the right thing for the people they represent.”
Back in time
The dust flying from vehicles traveling over newly converted gravel roads in the Trempealeau County town of Chimney Rock is a fitting symbol for a transportation funding shortfall that has many local government officials at their wits’ end.
After cuts in recent years in state funding for local governments in the form of municipal aid, longtime Chimney Rock town Chairman Gerald Hawkenson said the municipality had no choice but to start turning deteriorating paved roads back to gravel.
“It’s a sad situation,” Hawkenson said. “Actually, you’re going backward, but the price of everything has gone up, and government funding doesn’t keep up with it.”
Since 2010 the town has transformed at least seven miles of once-paved roads into gravel, he estimated.
Rebuilding a damaged road with gravel is cheaper than pavement upfront and thus the only solution the town can afford with current funding levels and without imposing an unreasonably high tax burden on town residents, Hawkenson said. The downside is that a gravel road’s maintenance costs are higher.
“There needs to be more funding from the state,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
A shortage of federal and state money for repairing and replacing bridges also is creating a strain for regional counties.
The most recent National Bridge Inventory by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association indicates that of the 14,230 bridges in Wisconsin, 1,232, or 9 percent, are classified as structurally deficient. That means one or more of the key bridge elements, such as the deck, superstructure or substructure, is considered to be in “poor” or worse condition.
The study showed that 451 state bridges were posted for load, which may restrict the size and weight of vehicles crossing the structures.
In Chippewa County alone, about 44 bridges are load-posted to limit their use by heavy vehicles, Kelley said, with several considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
“Some are just so old that we don’t know what their foundation is,” he said.
A few bridges in the county are posted with limits as low as 6 tons, meaning they are only safe for cars and light trucks. That can create a financial burden and inconvenience for farmers and loggers forced to take heavy vehicles on long detours around posted bridges, Kelley added.
Eau Claire County also has a number of bridges posted with load limits as well as three functionally deficient bridges, all built 70 to 100 years ago, that need to be replaced. With state funding that would cover 80 percent of the cost unavailable until 2021, the county is planning to replace them and bear 100 percent of the cost, Johnson said.
“Instead of waiting that long, we need to get them replaced because they’re in a condition now that they won’t even last until we can get those state funds,” he said.
The goal, of course, is to avoid a safety hazard such as what happened in February when a 100-year-old bridge partially collapsed in the Buffalo County town of Waumandee.
One driver sustained minor injuries when his car rolled over and struck the bridge abutment after coming upon the collapsed portion of the structure. Another driver was unable to stop in time to avoid the collapsed area and drove over the edge, causing her vehicle to become airborne.
The Highway U bridge over Hesch Valley Creek has been replaced by a temporary bypass.
For Craig Thompson, executive director of the Madison-based Transportation Development Association, what’s most disturbing is that Wisconsin isn’t taking any meaningful steps to improve its lowly ranking for pavement quality.
“States all over the country are realizing once they reach this point that it’s a real strain on their budget, and a lot of them have stepped up and passed revenue packages to try and fix their roads,” Thompson said. “But we’re at the bottom and not doing anything.”
The longer Wisconsin waits, the more the price tag for repairing the state’s roads will grow, Thompson warned.