Officials in 37 cities and counties say spending dollars for roadways hasn’t kept pace with needed repairs under the Republican-led legislature.

When Chippewa County officials proposed boosting the county sales tax by a half-percent earlier this month, they joined a growing number of cities and counties across Wisconsin seeking  funding from the state to help pay for failing roads.

Thirty-seven Wisconsin cities, counties, and villages require motorists to pay an extra vehicle registration fee — commonly referred to as a “wheel tax” — to help pay for crumbling roads and bridges. Wheel taxes are in addition to the annual $85 vehicle registration fee the state collects annually for each vehicle. Many of those fees have been enacted or sharply increased in recent years.  

Officials in those municipalities and elsewhere say spending dollars for roadways hasn’t kept pace with needed repairs under the Republican-led legislature in recent years. Wisconsin’s gas tax has not increased since 2006. A recent deterioration of state roads prompted some to refer to rough stretches of pavement as “Scottholes” in reference to former Gov. Scott Walker.

City and county budget spending in Wisconsin is capped by tax levy limits that typically average two or three percent annually, and paying for fast-rising road repair costs and other expenses under those constraints simply isn’t feasible, local government officials across the state say.

Current funding for state roads includes about $400 million in new money as part of the 2019-21 state budget signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers. That money comes through increases in vehicle title and registration fees. 

However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they’re concerned about future funding for Wisconsin roads because even that increase is not enough to keep pace with needed fixes. Evers sought an eight -cent-per-gallon gas tax increase in his budget proposal, but that provision was removed by Republicans in the Assembly and Senate.   

Chippewa County officials are seeking new revenue to fix roads. The County Board instituted a $10 per-vehicle wheel tax five years ago, but that $550,000 in additional annual revenue will expire at the end of this year, leaving the county with no means of continuing to pay for road repairs above what state funding allows. Some of the higher sales tax collections would help pay for road and bridge projects in that county.   

In September, Milwaukee County officials requested that state legislators allow them to seek a one- percent sales tax increase, a measure that would raise as much as $160 million for the county. Some of that money could be used to help pay for roads. The measure could go before voters as soon as an April referendum if legislators approve allowing it to occur. 

As state transportation funds failed to fully pay for the state’s portion of needed repairs to city and county roads during the past decade, more municipalities have turned to a wheel tax as an option to afford those fixes. Last year, after much debate, Eau Claire County approved a $30-per-vehicle wheel tax. That figure ties Milwaukee County for the highest such tax among Wisconsin counties. 

City of Madison motorists currently pay the highest vehicle registration fee in the state, as the city charges $40 and Dane County, where Madison is located, charges an additional $28. 

Langlade County boasts the most recently enacted wheel tax; vehicle owners will begin paying a $15 fee starting next month.