Pot hole pain: Street repairs jeopardized by fuzzy political road-building math

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

The most vicious winter in decades has left urban streets in Wisconsin so scarred with potholes that some look like they belong in developing nations.

“Once you get off the highways, it’s like you’re in Somalia or somewhere — it’s just crazy,” says Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. His Madison-based organization promotes land use and transportation policies that benefit the state’s economic, environmental and cultural health.

Neglected potholes in Milwaukee also are dragging down the state’s economic future, says Ald. Tony Zielinski, who represents the 14th District.

“The bad roads put Milwaukee at an economic disadvantage when it comes to competing for new businesses,” Zielinski said. “The state is not giving us adequate money to deal with this problem, and Milwaukee is the state’s economic engine. So having a poor infrastructure here hurts all of Wisconsin.”

Hiniker and other “smart-growth” supporters say the potholes also contribute to fatal accidents and wreak havoc on vehicles — blowing out tires, bending wheel rims, throwing out alignments and devastating shock-absorption systems.

But in addition to creating danger and damage, potholes represent government mismanagement of public funds for political purposes at its worst, according to a growing chorus of critics.

Hiniker jokes that the state’s road builders are the best-financed unit of state government. 

Danger and graft

Last year, TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, released a report estimating that “unacceptably rough” roads cost a total of $80 billion nationwide, with the average urban driver faced with $377 a year in repairs.

This year’s toll will likely be much higher in urban areas of Wisconsin.

A Milwaukee call center that takes public requests for pothole repairs got 3,680 reports Jan. 1 – March 20 this year. That compares with 2,695 from Jan. 2 to March 20 of last year — a 27-percent increase.

Unfortunately, there’s not much Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can do about the pothole menace. When it comes to paying for road repairs, the state is stingy and has policies that limit the ability of local  officials to address infrastructure problems.

Smart-growth advocates say that Wisconsin and most other state governments overwhelmingly favor new construction over road maintenance, because builders  funnel more cash back into elected officials’ coffers — an assertion that the numbers seem to bear out.

Last year Gov. Scott Walker allocated $3.3 billion in transportation spending, and the lion’s share of it went toward expanding highways, some of which actually have declining traffic, and building new highways where there’s not nearly enough use to justify them, Hiniker said.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee and other urban areas of Wisconsin got the fuzzy end of the funding lollipop. Milwaukee wound up with only $2.4 million for street repairs last year, and while this year the reimbursements might rise by up to 4 percent, it’s not enough to address the magnitude of the problem, according to analysts.

But Hiniker and others stress that Walker and his fellow Republicans can’t be singled out to shoulder the blame for the situation. Misuse of transportation funds to favor road builders is a bipartisan scam — essentially a legal form of graft that’s equally exploited by both Democrats and Republicans, they say.

Fuzzy math and secret gifts

The only way that Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can get more funding for road repairs is by increasing property taxes. But politics and the state’s lagging economy make that option a non-starter. Instead, cities are stuck with choosing between filling in van-eating sinkholes and maintaining an adequate fire department, according to city halls across the state.

Drivers assume that the various automobile fees and taxes they pay at the pump cover the cost of local road repairs. But by the time that money winds its way through the labyrinthine process of transportation funding, there’s very little left for the neighborhood pothole that nearly killed you.

Hiniker says it’s time for taxpayers to wake up and smell the tar.

As Hiniker tells the story, sometime during the 1980s local municipalities asked the Legislature for permission to raise money to pay for road resurfacing and other such infrastructure repairs. But lawmakers at the time said no, instead promising to reimburse cities and towns for 85 percent of such incurred costs from the state’s segregated Transportation Fund. 

The percentage of reimbursement has steadily declined over the past decade. Now it’s only about 12 percent, Hiniker estimates. It’s hard to tease out the actual number, because the Wisconsin Department of Transportation categorizes work involved in many new construction projects as repairs, even if the “repairs” are made to roads already in good condition.

For instance, the expansion of I-94 from Milwaukee to Kenosha cost $2.2 billion, but only $200 million of that was classified as new construction. All the rest of the cost fell into the category of repair and maintenance.

That’s not the only situation in which transportation-funding math gets fuzzy. Dennis Yaccarino, a budget analyst for the City of Milwaukee, says WisDOT claims to have increased the amount of shared revenue given to municipalities for road repairs. It has, but in a way that fails to benefit cities such as Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.The forumula used is almost impenetrably complicated and gives sprawling rural areas an advantage over heavily trafficked urban locations.

The math goes from fuzzy to utterly opaque when it comes to figuring out how much the state’s two dozen or so road builders give to lawmakers in each election cycle. That’s partly due to new rules that allow for unlimited anonymous donations to third-party campaign activity and partly due to the time-honored practices of bundling donations or making them under the names of friends or family members.

Down the road

Walker’s current state biennial budget contains so many new highway projects that the state would have to borrow about $993 million to pay for them all. Walker has justified piling on the future debt by touting all the construction jobs that the new projects would generate — a position that puts him at odds with himself.

In the past, Walker ruled out using public works to create jobs, implying that they represent a kind of socialism that stymies the free-enterprise system. He’s also opposed projects that burden the future with costs, such as health care expansion. In fact, he cited both objections in one of the most controversial decisions he’s made as governor — killing an inked deal to implement a high-speed rail system from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis. 

Along with that move, Walker turned down more than $800 million in federal funds, as well as all the jobs and economic activity the project would have generated. He also ensured more strain on state highways — strain that could have been avoided if people had another way to travel those heavily trafficked corridors. In fact, polls increasingly show that people, especially young people, prefer alternative travel options over driving.

Ironically, Walker said at the time that maintaining the trains would burden future taxpayers with debt. But, as Hiniker points out, that’s exactly what the governor’s new highway-building projects do. He’s budgeted insufficiently for future repairs, but certainly they will have to be made on every mile of highway that he builds, according to Hiniker.

So, in addition to the debt Walker will incur by borrowing money to pay for highways that experts say are largely unneeded, he’s adding to future budgetary woes.

For more

Visit Wisconsin Highway Waste on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/highwaywastewisconsin?fref=ts

Also read Jim Rowen’s blog about wasteful highway spending:  http://thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/2014/03/fix-potholes-wisconsin-pols-buying-more.html?m=1