Eau Claire County Trunk Highway TT (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Eau Claire County Trunk Highway TT (Photo by Julian Emerson)

But the $75 million is far from what’s needed for potholes, bridges and more

Just as he does on many days, on Thursday morning Jim Zons drove along Highway B, a well-traveled north-south road just east of Menomonie.

The road is in need of repairs, and Zons felt the jolts of periodic potholes as his vehicle traversed the route known to locals for its especially rough surface.

“I get more complaints about that road than anything else,” Zons, a Dunn County Board member, said of phone calls he receives from people upset about the poor condition of Highway B.

Motorists won’t have to put up with that bumpy road much longer, thanks to a $1 million state grant announced on Wednesday by Gov. Tony Evers’ office. That money is part of a one-time $75 million infusion from the state’s Multimodal Local Supplement (MLS) fund for 152 transportation-related projects across the state.

The funding will go toward road projects in 84 towns, 34 cities and 34 villages, work many local government officials across Wisconsin said wouldn’t be possible without the additional dollars. The maximum grant for any one project was $1 million. 

Distribution of new Multimodal Local Supplement road grants to municipalities around the state (Image by WI Department of Transportation)

Eau Claire County received $770,000 for roadwork on Highway TT on Eau Claire’s far western edge. The road is in poor condition, county Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said, and has been deemed a priority to fix. 

However, he said, a county budget stretched thin by many other road projects and revenue limits that limit spending, meant the county hadn’t planned on getting to that project for another three years.

“We just didn’t have the money to get to it sooner,” Johnson said. “So this money from the state for this project is a real blessing.”

Planning for Highway TT improvements will begin soon, Johnson said, and work on the project is scheduled for next year. Some MLS projects can be constructed this year, while others will not take place until 2021.

Government officials in other Wisconsin municipalities also expressed gratitude for the added transportation funding. For instance, Fond du Lac County received money for three transportation projects totalling more than $2 million. Likewise, four road projects in Jefferson County received nearly $2.5 million for repairs. 

In addition to road fixes, MLS transportation dollars were allotted to bridge repairs and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

The city of La Crosse received $1 million for road upgrades and adding bicycle/pedestrian lanes at Palace and Larson streets. In the Chippewa County city of Stanley, a bridge along West Eighth Avenue will be repaired, and bicycle and pedestrian updates will be part of that $351,302 project.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said legislative Republicans advocated for spending $90 million in the current state budget to repair local roads. He criticized Evers for reducing that figure to $75 million by using his veto powers to reallocate $15 million of that for education initiatives. He also was critical of money spent on bicycle/pedestrian initiatives, saying “it’s disappointing that 100 percent of the money isn’t going to local roads as intended.”

While local government officials said they are thankful for MLS dollars, much more must be done to address crumbling roadways in Wisconsin that have deteriorated significantly during the past decade.

That fact is evident by the fact more than 1,600 applications to repair failing roads were received from communities across the state as part of the MLS grant process. Those projects totaled about $1.4 billion.

“There is a real problem keeping up with road repairs in this state,” Johnson said. “Right now, we just don’t have enough money to do it.”

Lafayette County Board supervisor Kriss Marion said she and others in southwestern Wisconsin were “crestfallen” to learn their request to fix Highway S between Blanchardville and Hollandale was denied.

The road is in such poor condition, she said, that it has prompted two recent community meetings and is deemed by many as unsafe to drive on.

“It is a punishing, punishing road. It is in terrible shape,” she said, noting the current funding formula to counties doesn’t allow for enough money to fix that road and others badly in need of repairs this year. 

Lafayette County did receive $51,833 for repairs to one bridge, but that isn’t nearly enough to address the region’s poor roads, said Michael Berg, who farms in rural Blanchardville. Many motorists have trouble navigating crumbling rural roads there to access highways to get to their jobs, he said.

Legislative Democrats have proposed adopting a gas tax to help pay for road maintenance, but the Republican-controlled Legislature has refused to approve that measure.

Lawmakers from both parties said they’re concerned about the future of road funding in the state despite the addition of nearly $400 million in new revenue allotted for transportation that was included in the 2019-21 state budget.

The state must do something to boost road funding soon, Berg said. Small towns like Blanchardville will struggle even more economically without good travel routes to get to and from them.  

“We’ve got to look at a gas tax or some other way of fixing roads,” Berg said. “We have no good transportation to get to the larger cities, and these small towns are dying because of it.”