Columnist asks who’s to blame for poor roads
By Matt Pommer
A good friend who lives in suburban Milwaukee recently reported there were potholes on her neighborhood streets. She added that she blamed President Obama for the situation.
Cynics might blame conservative talk-radio personalities. They regularly lay the blame for American problems, both real and perceived, on the White House doorstep. Or perhaps her local government officials are using Obama’s name to soothe annoyed residents in the Milwaukee suburb. The suburb returns strong Republican pluralities at each election.
Don’t blame her. Republicans have no other choice than to blame Obama. He is the only major Democratic official in sight. Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress and both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. The governor is a Republican, and conservatives even control the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
It’s easy to understand why a solid Republican would surely think the problem resides with Obama.
The truth is that we are the problem. We want good roads, highways and bridges. But we’d rather not pay any more to accomplish those goals. Accounting shifts and borrowing are widely used when it comes to road issues, including the local government role in filling potholes.
In October, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities called on Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature “to enact an adequate, equitable and sustainable transportation funding system” that met both state and local needs. Republican legislative leaders have prodded and implored Walker to present a solution—beyond just borrowing—to meet transportation needs.
The league’s resolution cited a report by the Local Government Institute that the Wisconsin system of roads and bridges is below average. Less than half the pavement is rated “good” in terms of smoothness. Thirty-five states, including three neighboring states, have roads and bridges in better condition than Wisconsin.
“The situation is significantly worse in Wisconsin’s 15 urbanized areas, where only 15 percent of urban streets are rated ‘good,’ while just half are considered ‘acceptable,’” the league said in its resolution calling for help.
Local governments, the people in charge of fixing most street potholes, rely significantly on state assistance. “The percentage of local government-related costs that the state reimburses municipalities has steadily declined, shifting ever more of the cost onto property taxpayers,” the league noted.
Critics have suggested the state has focused on major highway projects at the expense of help for filling neighborhood potholes.
While Wisconsin awaits Walker’s plan, attention will be focused on the new five-year, $286 billion federal transportation budget that was hammered out after Thanksgiving by congressional conferees. The document runs more than 1,300 pages, so it will take some time for individual states to grasp.
A spokesman for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a trade group, said the new federal budget will provide more flexibility for states to consider implementing tolls on Interstate highways that had been partially built with federal assistance.
Public opinion polls regularly show significant support for imposing tolls on major roads and bridges. That may reflect that most people do their driving on local streets going to work or getting children to school. The over-the-road trips that could involve toll roads may be popular for various holidays, but the mileage for most would be less than the daily driving.
Early in December, gasoline was priced below $2 in some Wisconsin localities. That might seem an opening for a gas tax increase to help pay for things such as aid to local governments to repair potholes.
Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He has covered government in Madison for 36 years. The content in this column does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the WNA or its member newspapers.