As he laid out his concerns in maintaining – and funding – local roadways in Waukesha, Mayor Shawn Reilly described the situation as “a catch-22.”
“We’ve been working hard on fixing our roads,” Reilly said at a Sept. 29 town hall meeting at Waukesha County’s highway operations office, where he and other elected leaders in the city gathered to voice their concerns about the financially struggling regional infrastructure.
“We spend at least half a million dollars each year on roads, and most of it is bonded,” Reilly said. “If we don’t spend money on roads now, we’ll spend substantially more
in the future.”
At the same time, Reilly said city officials are hamstrung in how they can fund infrastructure projects, pointing out state statutes place strict parameters around property tax levy amounts.
“We’re losing ground on this,” Reilly said.
The Waukesha mayor’s comments were echoed numerous times by other municipal leaders across the county throughout the hour-long town hall meeting, a transportation summit which was attended by several dozen people. The event ties into a larger campaign, “Just Fix It,” through an organization known as Turnout for Transportation.
In an unprecedented move, all 72 of Wisconsin’s counties held “Just Fix It” town hall meetings last week on the same date and time. A coalition of organizations from such disparate backgrounds as public works professionals, tourism representatives and economic development officials spearheaded the initiative.
The concerns are partially rooted in
Gov. Scott Walker’s directive this summer, which set the stage for the state Department of Transportation’s short- and long-term budget planning.
Walker’s directive to DOT staffers includes no tax or fee increases, a $447.3 million cut to capital spending on highway maintenance and lowering overall spending in the next two years, from $6.8 billion to $6.5 billion.
A further mandate from Walker — a $65 million increase in state aid to local municipalities for municipal roadways — has been half-heartedly lauded by county and municipal governing bodies throughout the state.
“We’re appreciative of that increase,” said Allison Bussler, director of the Waukesha County Department of Public Works. “But compared to the needs out there, it’s not really solving all of our problems.”
While jurisdictional responsibilities differ between roadways, several speakers said maintaining a rural roadway in a town is as important as keeping up with the freeway system since all are an intertwined part of the state’s transportation network.
“A key factor in any economy is a vibrant and efficient transportation system,” said Suzanne Kelley, president and CEO of the Waukesha County Business Alliance. “It’s important to employees, it’s important for business growth, and it’s important for visitors.”
An issue particularly impacting Southeastern Wisconsin is the interstate system, which was constructed at nearly the same time — at or near 50 years ago — and is almost simultaneously reaching the end of its life span.
Finding the funds to keep pace with rapidly increasing infrastructure improvement needs in the years ahead was a topic explored throughout last week’s meeting.
“We’re all having trouble maintaining sustainable, safe roads,” said town of Genesee chairwoman Sharon Leair. “I think it’s fair to say we’re all frugal with our budgets. We’re all going to need additional funds. The money is just not there. We need help.”
A few possible solutions were shared at the meeting, and several speakers noted one silver lining — historically low gas prices — could make an increased gas tax or vehicle registration fee concepts motorists might get behind.
Walter “Buck” Houston, a town of Genesee supervisor, said he would not favor increasing taxes solely for the purpose of funding road improvements.
“I’m not a fan of tax increases,” Houston said. “But I am in favor of increasing user fees. I think it’s more equitable to those who use the system.”
Waukesha County supervisor Robert Kolb said he believes local, county and state lawmakers should first look within their own budgets and see if there is any money in other funds that could be diverted to improve infrastructure.
“I think we need to spend money more wisely,” Kolb said. “We have some budgets that I think could be thinned out. I’d like to see a little more give and take here.”
For more details on the “Just Fix It” campaign, visit justfixitwi.com.