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In rural WI, local economies slip through crumbling roads

JJ Gouin/JJ Gouin - stock.adobe.com

By Julian Emerson for The Daily Yonder.Broadcast version by Mike Moen for Wisconsin News Connection Service for the Public News Service/Daily Yonder Collaboration

Each workday, as he travels from his home in northeast Lafayette County to Madison for his job driving a truck and then back again, Mike Berg feels the winding, deteriorating roads of the region he calls home, one bump and sharp curve at a time.

Berg has lived on his farm west of Blanchardville all of his 64 years, and in recent years he has noticed that more roads in the county's eastern half are increasingly in need of repair. He worries those subpar roadways not only make for more dangerous driving but are limiting economic development in his part of the county.

That fear came to life recently, when organizers of the annual county dairy breakfast called off the event because so many roads and bridges were in disrepair that it made simply getting to the event difficult for many residents. In addition to numerous poor stretches of roads, seven bridges in the county need fixing.

"That's just a sign of how bad our roads are," Berg said of the canceled dairy breakfast. "It's getting hard to even put on events, much less attract businesses to come here."

In addition to his truck driving job, Berg raises beef cattle on his 540-acre farm. Large trucks and farm equipment have difficulty navigating some of the poor county roads, he said, sometimes causing motorists to go out of their way to avoid trouble spots and to take alternate routes to do fieldwork or get products to market.

"There are plenty of rough roads out there around the state, and our county certainly has its fair share of them," Berg said during a recent evening while driving the winding, hilly roads that make up his home county. "We have our work cut out for us to get some of these roads up to par."

Lafayette County is far from alone among Wisconsin county highway departments struggling to keep up with needed road repairs. Highway commissioners in counties across Wisconsin report that keeping up with fixes to roads is becoming more challenging as revenue for those improvements is far outpaced by the rising price of that work.

Substandard bridges are especially problematic in western Wisconsin. The state Department of Transportation rates 980 bridges across the state as structurally deficient, meaning one or more bridge elements is significantly deteriorated. Of those, 75 percent are in the state's western part.

The gap between allowable road and bridge repair funding and the price tag of improvements has become especially acute in recent years, highway commissioners said, and is exacerbated by price spikes attributed in part to supply chain issues prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Local governments in Wisconsin are limited as to how much revenue they can raise by a state revenue cap.

To generate additional road repair funds, some counties have adopted a vehicle registration tax, commonly referred to as a "wheel tax," with money raised used for road repairs and snowplowing. Many counties have borrowed money to keep pace with road maintenance, as those dollars are exempt from the revenue cap. However, that practice means more money is spent paying off debt, leaving less for services and programs.

"No matter what we do, it doesn't feel like we can keep up," Chippewa County Highway Commissioner Brian Kelly said.

Help On The Way

The infrastructure bill proposed by President Joe Biden's administration and approved by Congress in November will provide a much-needed boost to upgrade roads and bridges. As part of the legislation, Wisconsin is projected to receive $5.5 billion during the next five years to update not only roads and bridges but for mass transit improvements, lead pipe removal, stormwater controls and PFAS abatement.

Those dollars are welcome news to county highway commissioners, who said any additional infrastructure funding will help stretch existing dollars that don't go far enough. The first round of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) for Wisconsin road and bridge projects was announced earlier this summer , and applications for the second round were recently received and are scheduled to be announced in July.

St. Croix County recently received BIL funds for bridge repairs, and the town of Somerset in that county is also the recipient of dollars to upgrade a substandard bridge.

"Certainly BIL is going to help improve our bridges and roads in need of repair across the state," St. Croix County Highway Commissioner Robbi Krejci said. "We are sorely in need of a capital increase for those projects, and any additional money we get for them is greatly appreciated."

Chippewa County received nearly $1 million in the first round of BIL money to reconstruct a section of Highway C. County officials submitted three projects for the second round of that funding and also is part of a $33 million reworking of Highway T in conjunction with Eau Claire County and the city of Eau Claire.

Roads and bridges in Chippewa County will receive additional help from $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding in upcoming years. Such federal and state infrastructure money is critical to catching up on past-due road repairs, Kelly said, noting the current funding level allows for repairing 10 miles annually, about half of what is needed.

Federal infrastructure dollars will help fund numerous road and bridge projects across northern Wisconsin, including in Ashland County, where 10 miles of Highway 13 south of Mellon will be resurfaced. Another section of that highway through Ashland is scheduled for repaving in 2025.

Because they are home to much federal forestland, some northern counties qualify for Federal Lands Access Program funding, additional federal dollars that pay for road and bridge repairs. That money is critical to maintaining county and state highways in a region with little tax base, Ashland County Highway Commissioner Matt Erickson said.

"Without the federal grant funding, we would simply not be able to fix a lot of our roads. We simply wouldn't have the money for that," Erickson said.

Challenges Remain

While BIL and other federal and state highway spending will provide much-needed dollars for road and bridge maintenance, work remains to find a long term solution to improving infrastructure funding across Wisconsin, transportation experts said. The fact that requests for BIL dollars far outnumber projects granted those dollars is a sign of the extreme need for such funding, they said.

In the first round of BIL funding in Wisconsin, 40 projects of 306 applicants were chosen to receive funding.

"A lot of people think we have all of this infrastructure money coming, that we will have all of our roads and bridges rebuilt. But that's not exactly how it works," Trempealeau County Highway Commissioner Al Rinka said. "This is a competitive application process, and there is no guarantee you are going to receive this money."

Krejci and other highway commissioners said they realize many of the projects they submit for BIL funding may not be approved. However, they said they're grateful for the assistance those dollars will provide.

"Those (BIL grants) are competitive, and they're certainly not a magic bullet," Krejci said. "But any additional revenue, any increase in transportation funding is very helpful."

St. Croix County has among the fastest-growing populations in Wisconsin as the Twin Cities spreads eastward. That population boom is stretching the county's infrastructure, Krejci said, causing roads and bridges to wear out faster. Transportation experts typically expect roads to last for 30 years before they need replacing. But increased vehicular traffic is shortening the life of more highly traveled roads in St. Croix County, Krejci said.

St. Croix County, along with Milwaukee County, were the first in Wisconsin to adopt a wheel tax, when they did so in 2008. But even that added revenue hasn't been enough to maintain roads properly, Krejci said.

"That's really the name of the game, how long can I stretch the useful life of that road," he said. "Right now, some roads we just need to make passable until we can afford to do a quality fix."

Searching for Answers

Maintaining roads and bridges has become even more difficult in recent months, as price spikes for materials and challenges finding enough available labor make each mile of road repairs increasingly expensive. Highway commissioners across the state said the price of asphalt and other construction-related costs have grown over time and skyrocketed in recent months, with many paying 35% or more this year compared to just one year ago.

Krejci's department must repair at least 15 miles of roads annually to maintain current conditions, but this year higher repair prices mean that figure likely will be 10 to 12 miles, he said, noting that number has dipped to as low as eight or nine miles in recent years because of a lack of funding. Rinka said he faces the same predicament.

"When costs rise so much and you don't receive additional revenue, it means you can't pave as many miles," Rinka said.

La Crosse County must upgrade nine miles of roadways each year to keep up current road conditions, but a lack of money and rising costs in recent years means that isn't happening, county Highway Commissioner Joe Langeberg said. His county received nearly $400,000 in the first round of BIL funding to highway repairs, and he plans to apply for additional road project dollars.

"The need for replacing bridges, or reconditioning roads, has been consistent" and funding has not kept pace, he said.

While BIL money will help boost needed road and bridge improvements for the next several years, more must be done to address infrastructure funding statewide on an ongoing basis, transportation experts said. The Republican-led state Legislature has discussed adopting a gas tax and other possible means of raising additional revenue to fix roads and bridges in recent years. But so far lawmakers have not adopted measures that would more fully fund those costs.

That situation has highway commissioners like Erickson concerned about how to pay for that upkeep down the road. Like many counties, Ashland County has borrowed money to help pay for road upgrades. A referendum vote last year that would have allowed the county to exceed the state spending cap to pay more for roads and other services failed, and property tax growth in the county isn't nearly enough to keep pace with expenses.

"For sure I worry about that, how are we going to pay for our roads going forward?" Erickson said. "As you look into the future, we will have a huge shortfall in that area. And right now, we don't have any answers."

Julian Emerson wrote this article for The Daily Yonder.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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