50 may be the new 30 for some, but …

My wife, Michelle, and I built our house about 12 years ago now. One of the things that appealed to me at the time about building new was not having the unexpected cost of home repairs that older houses can stick you with. (The other thing that appealed to me was that Michelle told me, “We are building new.”)

Well, all you homeowners out there know that there is no such thing as a “new” house for long. Whether we are talking about ourselves or our home, aging begins the moment either enters the world. While the constant “little” costs and maintenance issues began occurring much faster after moving in than I had anticipated, the 12-year mark seems to be the point at which all of my appliances and other parts of my house have collectively determined they don’t like me anymore. Those of us who have reached the 40-year mark may be able to attest to similar revolts going on physiologically as well.

I am not here to gripe. As a favorite philosopher of mine, Tom Petty, points out, “If you’re not getting older, you’re dead.” As it is with our aging bodies and our houses, so too is it with our transportation infrastructure.

The moment orange barrels are removed and we begin to roll our several-thousand-pound boxes over the new and improved stretch of concrete or asphalt, it begins to break down. You throw in Wisconsin’s freeze-thaw-freeze cycle along with our status as a heavy manufacturing and agriculture state and you have a recipe for a rough life for our thoroughfares.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, though, right? It is imperative that we stay on top of these at-risk roads to make sure they don’t meet their demise prematurely. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation should get high marks in this area. It developed an asset management tool called Meta-Manager – not to be confused with Metamucil, although one could argue the health benefits are comparable. Meta-Manager uses data and models to provide information on state highways so that the planners can prioritize which pavements and bridges need work first and when the appropriate time is for things like a first overlay, second overlay, maybe a third, or a complete rebuild. When these decisions are not arrived at and executed in a timely manner, it can reduce the useful life of pavement and drastically increase costs.

Local governments have a similar tool known as the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating System (PASER). It is important that we continue to improve upon these tools and make informed decisions based on the results. There are over 110,000 miles of interstate, state, and local roads that facilitate the movement of commerce in our state. It is in everyone’s best interests to maintain these thousands of miles of roadway as cost-effectively as possible.

While my roof repairs or appliance meltdowns may seem constant to me, the upkeep of our vast network of state and local roads is literally constant. That is why, on average, 85% of the total state highway program budget is spent on preservation of the existing state highway system. The data on all of the local roads is not as discernible in the aggregate, but I would venture to guess that if you ask local officials, they will tell you the percentage of their budgets that is dedicated to maintaining the existing local roadway is well in excess of that 85% figure.

Some have tried to argue that Wisconsin should spend more money on fixing what we have before building any “new” highways. I couldn’t agree more. Maintenance of our existing assets should be the top priority. I would contend, however, that maintenance clearly is already our state’s top priority today. If you can find me a “new” road being built where none had existed before, I would be interested in seeing it.

There are areas where the state plans to add capacity, but if you look at where these new miles are planned, they are being added as part of a major corridor that has to be rebuilt anyway. When it comes to us humans, we may have convinced ourselves that 50 is the new 30, but our interstate system has passed its Golden Jubilee and has had more work done on it than Joan Rivers. You can only resurface so many times. Eventually, the structure itself needs to be replaced. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of that process.


When talking about potential new lane miles, the majority of added capacity will be found in a couple of places – either as part of the rebuild of the Zoo Interchange or I-94 from the airport to the Illinois line or I-39-90 from Madison to the Illinois line. After years of analysis, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation determined that it is in the best interests of the state to build these major arteries in a way that will improve safety and accommodate traffic for the next 50 years as opposed to simply building the same structure that we did in the ’50s or ’60s over again.

You may hear some environmental groups charge that we don’t need these extra lane miles because the total number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have flattened out. That is true. It is hard to tell at this point how much is due to the Great Recession and how much is a hard trend moving forward. Either way, just because the total VMT number may not increase statewide as quickly as it has in the past, that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t going to increase in these urban corridors. As those of us over 40 also know, even if your total weight didn’t increase, it doesn’t mean it didn’t shift.

In the end I would say that when thinking about Wisconsin’s transportation system, and our roads in particular, you should keep a couple of things in mind. First, it is tremendously expensive to maintain the current asset. Second, we need to make timely and informed decisions regarding the maintenance and rehabilitation of our current roadways to maximize every dollar spent. Third, if you believe we are spending too much on building “new” roads versus maintaining what we have, all I ask is that you look at the actual projects in which additional lane miles are being proposed and be specific about which of those you would like to see pared back.

If we can stick to reasonable discussions based on fact, it would help me with my hypertension and high blood pressure. Just kidding. I don’t have either of those … yet. If my furnace goes next, however, my counts could go way up.

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