Wisconsin rural roads receive national attention, deteriorating condition blamed on lack of funding
MADISON, Wis. – As Wisconsin receives national attention being highlighted in a New York Times piece on the struggle to mend declining rural roads, residents are hoping for a fix.
A 2019 report from the National Transportation Research Nonprofit said Wisconsin’s rural roads are among the most deteriorated in the country, with nearly 20 percent classified as being in poor condition.
The New York Times article focuses on roads in Trempeleau County, but the issue’s impacts reach statewide.
“It has an effect on everyone,” Bryce O’Leary said.
Aging infrastructure and bad roads seem unavoidable, including for farmers. O’Leary is president of Wisconsin Custom Operators, which is made up of members who perform farm operations like harvesting across the state.
“(Bad infrastructure) creates problems getting supplies in and out of the farm,” he said. “Farmers have to take long detours to get to fields, even though the field is just on the other side of a creek or river, because there’s a bridge that’s bad.”
The factors at play have been culminating for awhile, according to Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association.
“I’m talking 10 to 15 years into a decreased overall condition of the roadways, both state and local system roadways,” Fedderly said.
The Wisconsin County Highway Association represents the state’s 72 County Highway and Public Works Departments and is responsible for the construction and maintenance of the County Trunk Highway System. It also oversees maintenance of the State Trunk Highway System and Interstate System under the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Fedderly said ideally, roads can last about 50 years before being rebuilt and about 25 years before being resurfaced. According to a WCHA survey, he said our county trunk highways are being rebuilt at a rate requiring a 200-year life cycle and are being resurfaced at a rate requiring a 90-year life cycle.
“We’ve got well over 100,000 miles of roadway in the state that needs to be taken care of,” Fedderly said.
He points to a lack of funding for maintenance and reconstruction along with increased use and traffic loads. He said the WCHA is working with the state to innovate ways to become more efficient and cost effective, but that can only go so far.
“We need the money to do the work. That’s the bottom line,” Fedderly said.
Last year, the state legislature shot down an 8-cent gas tax but voted to increase title and registration fees. The state budget provided a one-time funding of $75 million dollars for transportation projects.
“All that did was stop the decline,” Fedderly said. “It doesn’t get us to be able to start improving the system.”
“That doesn’t come near close enough to paying for repairs on the roads,” O’Leary said, adding that the problem can only be avoided for so long.
“We’ve got to come up with a formula.”
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