Businesses and local governments agree — Wisconsin roads suck

Over the past several weeks, the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin hosted community discussions about local transportation concerns. We held sessions in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Janesville, and Wausau.

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.

While each part of Wisconsin has its own characteristics, economic drivers, and set of issues, what we heard was remarkably consistent:

  • Reliability of the system is key to businesses competitiveness.
  • It is not an “either-or.” Wisconsin’s transportation system is a network — each component is essential.
  • Our transportation infrastructure is in disrepair.
  • Local governments are forced to do “work arounds,” which are not ideal, due to insufficient state funding.

It may be intuitive that transportation affects the bottom line of businesses but hearing specific examples from company representatives brought the point home. Kwik Trip has had to implement shorter intervals between maintenance on their vehicles due to road problems. The I–39/90 corridor was called Van Galder Bus Company’s lifeline. Frito Lay’s sales are jeopardized if they fail to hit a one-hour window with their deliveries. The gentleman from Blain’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.

Story after story confirmed what we learned in a recent report from TRIP, a national transportation research group that found Wisconsin roads are in rough shape. It’s also why the Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance gave our roads a “D” — the lowest grade on their 2015 report card.

From local government officials we heard an all too consistent story, as well. Due to a lack of state funding, many have increased their reliance on bonding to simply try and keep up. If it wasn’t increasing bonding, it was increasing the property tax or in some cases a local wheel tax. A city of Marshfield official discussed an upcoming referendum to exceed the property tax limit and increase property taxes by more than 10% to address several specific road projects. A Town of Lisbon official shared a story about how residents showed up at the annual meeting and voted for the most aggressive option, which included bonding for $8 million in road repairs over the next two years. That $8 million is approximately twice the town’s $4.5 million operating budget.

The other theme that was consistent was frustration. We heard business leaders and local government officials say, “It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Other states have come to an agreement on a solution to their transportation challenges. Over 20 states in the last several years have passed sustainable statewide transportation packages. Our neighbors in Michigan and Iowa are two of the more recent examples.

Listening to stories of Wisconsin businesses hampered because of our deteriorating transportation infrastructure was difficult. Hearing local officials talk about the piecemeal solutions they are forced to come up with wasn’t any better.

In Wisconsin, we pay significantly less in our transportation user fees — meaning our combined vehicle registration fees and gas taxes — than any of our neighboring states. After listening to the effects on our business community and our citizens, the old adage of “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind.

It’s time to just fix it, Wisconsin.

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