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How will we fix our roads?: Dunn County participates in historic “Turnout for Transportation”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  As anyone who has been paying attention knows — the cost for counties, cities, villages and townships to fix and maintain roads is a huge expense.

Representatives for municipalities in Dunn County made history when they gathered at the Dunn County Judicial Center September 29 for the first-ever statewide “Turnout for Transportation” to discuss ways to fund transportation.

At the same time, on the same night, Turnout for Transportation meetings were held in all 72 counties in Wisconsin.

“This is an historic event. All 72 counties are meeting at the same time to talk about sustainable solutions for transportation funding,” said Jesse Rintala, Dunn County highway commissioner and director of public works.

In a letter dated June 27, Governor Scott Walker instructed the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to work on a budget that relies on existing gas tax and vehicle registration fees, to minimize proposed spending on highway projects in southeastern Wisconsin, and to increase funding for local roads.

Paving one mile of rural roadway costs about $100,000.

And the Village of Colfax, for example, has recently spent $350,000 to reconstruct a two or three block section of street.

The increase in funding for local roads amounts to $120,000 more for Dunn County over two years on an annual $13 million highway budget that devotes $1.1 million to winter road maintenance, Rintala said.

“You’re not getting much for $120,000,” Rintala said.

$80

Dan Fedderly, chair of the Town of Sherman and chair of the Dunn County Towns Association, noted that the increase in local funding will amount to an $80 per mile increase for the townships.

Compared to the $100,000 to pave a mile of road, $80 seems like a small amount.

Handouts for Turnout for Transportation noted that the Wisconsin Towns Association said the increase would amount to $88 per mile for towns, “providing an infinitesimal percentage of the cost to reconstruct one mile.”

For the Town of Sherman, that will mean an additional $3,200 in state road aid, Fedderly said.

The increases in transportation proposed by the state are “not an investment in transportation. Is it a step in the right direction? Absolutely. But it is a small step,” he said.

Good roads are a safety issue and also are important for economic development, Rintala said.

The roads in the state are a transportation system that all fit together — state, town, county, village and city — and the local system is vital to the economy, he said.

The consensus is that Wisconsin is not keeping up with road maintenance, Rintala said.

“We need a sustainable solution to the problem. The lack of revenue for transportation has been a problem for many years. At some point there needs to be some action,” he said.

The proposed increases in transportation funding for local roads is a step in the right direction, but the gap between the needs and the proposal “is not even coming close to the gap,” Rintala said.

“The governor has dug in his heels and does not want to raise fees or the gas tax without reductions elsewhere (in the state budget),” he said.

“The increases are good, helpful and appreciated, but they are not addressing the sustainable funding issue,” Rintala said.

Not the end

“We’ve got a long ways to go. This is by far not the end of the discussion. This is just the beginning of the discussion,” Fedderly said.

For the governor and the state Legislature to believe a separation exists between roads in the southeastern part of the state and roads in the rest of the state indicates a lack of concern about maintaining the state’s entire transportation system, Fedderly and Rintala said.

Trucks come from farm fields or local forests drive on town roads, drive on county roads, get to state highways, and then use the Interstate system to reach other parts of Wisconsin, Rintala noted.

Conversely, the highway system in the southern part of the state feeds into the system in the northern part of the state, he noted.

Setting aside projects in southeastern Wisconsin and delaying them for several years will only increase the cost of those projects that will eventually have to be completed, Fedderly said.

When the roads in southeastern Wisconsin cannot wait any longer, then the funding will be pulled from the roads in the northern part of the state, he said.

“The longer you starve the system in southeastern Wisconsin, the worse it will all get,” Fedderly said.

To make a proper investment in the transportation system in Wisconsin, the question must be asked: what are the needs? he said.

“The Legislature has never asked, ‘how much do we really need?’ … the needs are greater than what is being talked about right now,” Fedderly said.

“The Legislature needs to know the reality of the situation,” he said.

Six legislators in the southern part of the state are saying the roads in southeastern Wisconsin are more important than the rest of the state — but they should be talking about how the roads in southeastern Wisconsin are important to the rest of the state, he said.

67 years

The general rule of thumb used to be that a township could pave one mile of road per year.

But with the increased cost of oil, many townships can only manage one mile every other year or every couple of years.

Frank Bammert, chair of the Menomonie Town Board, noted that the Town of Menomonie has 67 miles of road.

“It will take us 67 years to do all of the roads at one mile per year,” he said.

And because of tight budgets, when another expense comes along, the money often comes out of the road budget, Bammert noted.

Some residents also do not seem to realize they live in Wisconsin where there is snow and ice in the winter because “they want July roads in January,” he said.

Dunn County has 425 miles of county road and generally is able to pave ten miles per year, Rintala said.

At that rate, Dunn County can replace each road once every 40 years, he said.

“Twenty-five years is asking a lot for a road,” Rintala said.

Right now, Dunn County has a backlog of $20 million in road projects, not including culverts and bridges, he said.

The county has a very long list of highway projects that need to be completed but only two or three of those projects can be done per year, Rintala said.

Magic

There is no “magic” solution to increasing revenue for transportation, Fedderly said.

Figuring out how to fund transportation is up to the Legislature to solve, he said.

Funding sources could include an increase in vehicle registration fees, an increase in the gas tax, and implementing toll roads and a vehicle mile tax, Fedderly said.

Unfortunately, no matter which solution the Legislature may consider, someone will be vigorously opposed to it, he said.

So what is the solution?

“Do them all,” Fedderly said, “Do them all.”

Increased revenue from registration fees, gas tax, toll roads and a vehicle mile tax would generate enough money to help solve the state’s transportation funding problem, he said.

Wisconsin has increased expenses for roads because of the winter weather, which damages the roads in the freeze-thaw cycles and also means increased winter road maintenance costs, Fedderly said.

Three or four years ago, the projection for revenue from making I-90 and I-94 toll roads was $850 million, he said.

Turning Wisconsin’s Interstate system into a toll road would require permission from Congress because the state used federal money to build the Interstate system in the 1950s, Fedderly said.

Making Wisconsin’s Interstate into a toll road would not cost the federal government any money, but it would require a governor who would support it, he said.

Wisconsin has a governor with “national political aspirations” who will not allow any tax or fee increases because of his hard-core politics, said Mark Warner, chair of the Town of Otter Creek.

Governor Walker is “playing to a faction of the Republican party” that does not support Donald Trump and is “holding out hope for 2020,” Fedderly said.

Action

One person in the audience noted that local elected officials can have the discussion, “but how do we get action?”

Another person in the audience said a “wheel tax” in Dunn County might be a solution.

Warner said he objected to a wheel tax because residents of the county would be paying for the damage caused by heavy milk trucks, logging trucks and manure trucks.

One proposal on the state level is to allow milk trucks to carry 120,000 pounds of milk instead of 80,000 pounds.

According to state law, a wheel tax cannot be imposed on commercial trucks.

“That is the problem with a wheel tax. It would shift the tax burden to the residents,” Fedderly said, once again stating that is why he is advocating for “doing them all” when it comes to potential revenue sources for transportation.

Lowell Prange, Menomonie city administrator, suggested that now would be the time for the Legislature to remove the levy limits that have been in place since 1993.

Many municipalities are borrowing money for road and street projects, and in the long run, interest on the borrowed money is costing taxpayers more than if the municipality simply levied for the street project, he said.

Representatives for the municipalities who attended the Turnout for Transportation were urged to send a special text message to elected officials or go through the Turnout for Transportation website to send a message.