Bridge rebuilding in Ashland County
Construction crews work to rebuild a bridge along Wisconsin Highway 13 damaged during a 2016 flood that washed out roads and bridges in parts of northern Wisconsin. The state could receive funding for bridges, roads and other infrastructure improvements as part of President Joe Biden's proposed infrastructure bills being debated by Congress. (Photo courtesy of the Ashland County Highway Department)

Measure expected to provide around $5.5 billion in transportation projects to Wisconsin and more in a variety of other job-creating improvements. 

Leaders from across Wisconsin—from mayors in all regions of the state to agriculture and transportation boosters—are applauding final congressional passage of President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

Backed by the Senate in August and approved by the House of Representatives late Friday in a 228-206 vote, the legislation will provide an estimated $5.5 billion in federal funding over five years to a wide assortment of transportation projects around Wisconsin, helping to shore up roads and bridges while additional funds will go toward job creation and improvements in mass transit, stormwater control, lead pipe and PFAS abatement, and broadband expansion. 

The White House estimates the various investments funded by the bill will sustain 2 million jobs per year across the country over the next decade.

La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds hailed the availability of federal funds to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in municipal groundwater sources. PFAS are man-made chemicals shown to have adverse health impacts. On nearby French Island, nearly 1,200 households have to use bottled water indefinitely due to PFAS contamination, at an estimated cost of around $500,000 per year.

“It is abundantly clear that local governments around the nation lack the resources to adequately mitigate the ill effects of PFAS chemicals on our precious groundwater sources,” Reynolds said in a press release just prior to the House vote. “The problems are simply too insidious and complex to manage through the annual budgeting process. In order to battle the lack of willing accountability of manufacturers for the impacts of their damaging and pernicious chemicals, municipalities like La Crosse must look to federal assistance to help provide a path forward to ensure resilience and to maintain a healthy and safe water supply for all of our community’s residents.” 

Municipal leaders in Sheboygan and Rhinelander also praised the impacts the bill could have on improving local water supplies and waterways .

“The bipartisan infrastructure package addresses critical needs facing Great Lakes cities, including upgrading water infrastructure, removing lead water lines, and cleaning up emerging contaminants such as PFAS,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on behalf of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. “It will also help us strengthen resilience to climate change by investing in programs that help cities mitigate impacts from flooding, severe storms, and shoreline erosion.” 

Roads and Bridges

Transportation leaders are also lauding the bill, which—according to White House estimates—will provide almost $6 billion for Wisconsin’s roads, bridges, and public transit. 

Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson said federal infrastructure dollars will provide a fiscal shot in the arm to help the state catch up on past-due needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently graded Wisconsin’s roads a D+, bridges a C+, and transit a D+ on the organization’s annual infrastructure report card

“Along with accelerating the improvement of roads and bridges all over the state, the bill will enable us to make greater investments in our transit systems, support for electric vehicles, and improvements in highway safety,” Thompson said in a news release. “This is truly an investment in improving the quality of life for all the people of Wisconsin.”

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In Superior, residents know to anticipate a bumpy road when they travel Tower Avenue, the part of State Highway 35 that passes through the city. That road is among those across the northern part of the state that could receive funding as part of the infrastructure bill. 

“Tower Avenue is the next big state project,” Mayor Jim Paine said when asked about infrastructure funding priorities. “We’ve got plenty of roads and bridges to build.”

In Waukesha, Mayor Shawn Reilly said he’s looking forward to paging through the city’s five-year infrastructure plan and seeing which of the many road and bridge projects might be able to get done sooner thanks to federal funding. 

“The City of Waukesha and the administration is very interested in applying for any federal money that we think we can use for any projects we can apply for in our five-year capital improvement plan,” Reilly said Monday. “I would love to apply for money for storm-water control projects, as well as some bridge [projects]. It’s not free money. It is money,  that if we are able to access it, it will be putting our citizens in a better position.”

Although 13 Republicans in the House supported the bill, every Republican from Wisconsin’s congressional delegation voted against the measure, including US Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who represents Waukesha. 

This section of Wisconsin Highway 13 in Ashland County was among roads washed out during a 2016 flood. Funding to fix roads and bridges in Wisconsin was increased in the 2019-21 state budget but lagged needed improvements for years before that. (Photo courtesy of the Ashland County Highway Department)

Eau Claire City Council member Jeremy Gragert was also encouraged by what the federal funds could mean for his city, mainly accelerating the rate at which the community can complete road and bridge upgrades.  

“Those things are expensive, so this money will really help,” Gragert said, noting that Eau Claire is currently making costly street repairs on its borders to include bicycle lanes and other features to make them more pedestrian-friendly. “We have fallen really far behind on our roads and other infrastructure, so this additional money is really needed because it can help us catch up.”

Broadband for Farmland  

Representing scores of farmers across the Dairy State, Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said the measure represented “a historic investment in the critical infrastructure needs of family farmers and our communities.” 

“The effects of this effort will be far-reaching, as the bill aims to strengthen our food supply chain through tremendous investment in the transportation infrastructure that family farmers rely on,” Von Ruden added. “Provisions of the bill will also help us bridge the gap on broadband access, respond to and begin countering the climate crisis, and reduce supply chain bottlenecks.”

The 2021 Broadband Deployment Report estimates that 6.8% of Wisconsin residents, 394,000 people, lack access to broadband with adequate bandwidth, higher than the 4.4% national average. Of the 394,000 total, 385,000 live in rural areas, the report shows, and make up 21.8% of the state’s rural population. 

Paine has watched as many community residents have struggled to access reliable Wi-Fi. Without that access in a society based increasingly on technology, business owners struggle to operate, students struggle to complete homework assignments, and many can’t access simple entertainment or online shopping options. 

To address the problem, Superior officials have been planning Connect Superior, a $31 million broadband expansion project that would be funded partly by federal dollars. Officials in other parts of Wisconsin also spoke about the need for improved broadband access. Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said expanded broadband is necessary “so every Wisconsinite will be empowered to participate in today’s and tomorrow’s economy.”