Wisconsin Group Says State Meetings Show Business Hampered by Road Conditions

AASHTO Journal, 10 June 2016

The head of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin said businesses and agencies across the state report that their operations are being hampered by traffic congestion and the condition of state roads.

In an opinion article carried early this month by various newspapers, Executive Director Craig Thompson said his group had held six discussion meetings around the state over the past few weeks about transportation infrastructure problems.

“We held sessions in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Janesville and Wausau,” he wrote. “Businesses, farmers, health-care providers and local government officials across the state showed up and had stories to tell and perspectives to share about how transportation affects their regions.”

capitol040116.jpgThompson’s group has for months mounted a “Just Fix It” messaging campaign aimed at building public support for legislation that would generate significantly more revenue so the state Department of Transportation and local governments could launch more road system improvements.

But he said in the recent meetings “what we heard was remarkably consistent” regardless of the region. Commenters, Thompson said, emphasized that reliability of the transportation network “is key to businesses competitiveness,” that the infrastructure is in disrepair and that businesses and local governments are resorting to “work-arounds” because of system conditions.

“Hearing specific examples from company representatives brought the point home,” Thompson said. “Kwik Trip has had to implement shorter intervals between maintenance on their vehicles due to road problems . . . Frito Lay’s sales are jeopardized if they fail to hit a one-hour window with their deliveries. And a representative from Blaine’s Farm & Fleet said the safety of his drivers keeps him up at night.

“Farmers repeatedly shared stories of having their routes increased significantly due to bridges and roads that are now weight-restricted. Timber producers are facing similar challenges.”

Thompson’s report on those meetings came days after Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said his next two-year budget request will be based on currently available revenues, which will not be enough to prevent delays in maintenance and expansion work on many state roads.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Gottlieb, in a June 1 interview, said under a “revenue-neutral” request – for the two-year budget cycle that begins in July 2017 – WisDOT will need to focus on maintaining the state’s bridges and most-traveled highways instead of expanding them or keeping less-used roads in current condition.

While WisDOT will prioritize keeping up bridges and “backbone” roads such as major highways, Gottlieb told the newspaper that the “non-backbone system, which is about 90 percent of the state highway system, is going to continue to deteriorate in condition.”

Wisconsin is one of a growing number of states in which DOT officials say that available funds won’t let them keep pace with a backlog of project needs or maintain the existing road system. This comes despite that the new five-year federal FAST Act increased highway funding modestly.

In recent years, Wisconsin lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker discussed ways to increase long-term transportation funding, but failed to agree on one, the State Journal said. Instead, they relied on additional bond debt while delaying some planned projects.

But that has not been enough to keep up with traffic demand. WisDOT in March issued a report saying drivers in the state had suffered 12.4 million hours of traffic delay over 12 months at a cost of $387 million, and that delay hours rose significantly from the 2014 fall quarter to last fall.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Development Association has built a statewide alliance of more than 400 stakeholders to highlight the need for a long-term funding fix.

Thompson said many local governments in Wisconsin, citing lack of state funds to cover project needs, have raised their own taxes and fees to pay for more road repairs. And across the country, he noted, “more than 20 states in the last several years have passed sustainable statewide transportation packages,” including Wisconsin neighbors Michigan and Iowa.

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