Merrimac resident Dean Voeks has a choice where he spends his money: Baraboo, Lodi or the Sauk Prairie area. But because of the condition of State Highway 78 between Merrimac and Prairie du Sac, the Sauk Prairie area isn’t typically high on his list.
“If I have a choice, I won’t drive it,” Voeks said. “Now that the ferry is running again, I’ll take the ferry and use 60 instead. It’s a lot less bouncy and hard on my vehicle.”
In February, Voeks started a petition calling for the repair of the nine-mile stretch of state highway, stating the road is unsafe because it’s heaving so badly. Many residents agree. Voeks received about 1,000 signatures on his petition, which he submitted to DOT secretary Dave Ross, as well as to Gov. Scott Walker’s office.
What frustrates Voeks is Highway 78 was reconstructed about a decade ago to the tune of $9 million, and should have lasted another 20 years.
“It’s a total screw up,” Voeks said. “It’s $9 million thrown away. I shouldn’t be giving the state a dime as a taxpayer if they can’t spend money correctly on a 10-mile strip. It doesn’t make sense to spend $9 million on a project that doesn’t last.”
Highway 78 is indicative of a larger problem facing the state: Wisconsin ranked 44th in road quality, according to an infrastructure rating in 2016 by U.S. News and World Report. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2017 report card gave the U.S. a D+.
President Donald Trump has proposed a preliminary $1.5 trillion plan to help support state efforts in rebuilding its roads, in addition to bridges and ports.
"For too long, lawmakers have invested in infrastructure inefficiently, ignored critical needs and allowed it to deteriorate,” Trump said in his Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America, issued Feb. 12. “As a result, the United States has fallen further and further behind other countries. It is time to give Americans the working, modern infrastructure they deserve."
The plan faces many obstacles, however, because it relies heavily on state and local funding.
Finding the money
According to Daniel Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, you have to look at the details of Trump’s plan to understand why it has a rough road ahead of it.
“Much of it is hinged on and based on leveraging state and local government,” Fedderly said. “Subsequently, if Wisconsin wants to generate or grab as much of the federal funding as it can, it will have to leverage dollars against it. If the state is already not raising additional funding as it is, it can’t take advantage of that, either. So what we anticipate we need is to generate additional revenue to maximize our opportunity to get those federal dollars.”
Of the proposed $1.5 trillion in federal funding, only $200,000 billion stems from direct federal spending, with the remainder falling on the shoulders of state and local governments which can gain access to the funding only if they match federal allocation on a 4-1 ratio.
After refusing to increase the gas tax in 2017, Gov. Scott Walker said in February he was "open" to an increase in the gas tax, but only if something else was cut from the state's transportation budget so the overall tax burden wouldn't increase.
"I want to be absolutely clear," Walker said during a February campaign stop in Milwaukee. "I will never approve a gas tax (increase) unless there's an equal or greater reduction of taxes."
Most state residents are paying less in gas tax than a decade ago because vehicles have become increasingly fuel efficient.
The governor has also spoken out against open-road tolling or a mileage-based charge for motorists as ways to increase funding for transportation projects.
In March 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation stopped a study on a potential expansion of interstate highways between Madison and Wisconsin Dells, attributing it to a reprioritization of other major transportation projects, despite a February 2017 statement by the DOT that the corridor would experience significant problems from traffic congestion if it is not expanded.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) who represents Senate District 27, said most of the people he has spoken with in his district would support a nickel gas tax increase to help in the short term.
“To me, it’s a simple fix,” Erpenbach said. “We raise the gas tax by a nickel for the short term, then sit down and find a long-term solution.”
Erpenbach said the state is at a “crisis point” with its roads.
“Governor Walker says we’re open for business, but if you drive on our roads, you wouldn’t think so,” Erpenbach said. “Transportation shouldn't be a partisan issue. We all use them. Just about everyone I’ve talked to in my district would support a nickel increase because they know exactly where the money is going.”
He said it isn’t going to happen in 2018.
“We’ll have to see what happens in the next budget,” Erpenbach said. “Whoever the next governor is, is going to have to have a plan for our infrastructure.”
Who is responsible?
Wisconsin is somewhat unique in being one of only a few states in the U.S. that contracts entirely with its counties to maintain state roads.
“The state doesn’t do any of its own work,” Fedderly said. “A few states have partial arrangements. But Wisconsin contracts all of its work to the counties.”
Fedderly said the Wisconsin County Highway Association is a membership of all 72 counties and is the oldest county highway association in the U.S. at more than 100 years old.
“Largely we have a mission to advocate and educate for transportation issues,” Fedderly said. It works not only with counties, but also as a resource for villages and towns.
Chris Hardy, Columbia County Highway Commissioner, said Columbia County has “extensive needs” with regard to road improvements.
“We do what we can on the maintenance end, but there are only so many things we can do,” Hardy said. “We are limited by the state as to how many roads we can do each year.”
Hardy said the county replaces eight miles of road surface on average per year, and roads are on a 52-year replacement cycle currently. However, a 30-year cycle is the recommended practice, Hardy said. Columbia County seal-coats about 15 miles of roads each year.
“You can see, because we can only touch so many miles each year, we continue to fall further behind without having a solution,” Hardy said. “It’s one of the most concerning things to me and my counterparts. We need to look at things long term and we’re just not keeping up.”
Hardy said until the county and the state starts thinking long-term, the problem isn’t going to get any better. “Until we do, it is very challenging for us on a year-to-year basis when you should be having a plan for 30-50 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of competing needs.”
Juneau County Highway Commissioner Dennis Weiss said he and his crew tries to tackle as much of the county’s 234 miles of two-lane roads as possible, but when it costs $180,000 per mile to lay a 4-inch asphalt mat at 24 feet wide, it gets expensive.
“It eats up the budget fast,” Weiss said. “We don’t have a lot for it, but we maintain the roads as best we can.”
The county currently works on two to five miles of road each year. Weiss said if it changed to 10 miles of road each year, the county could turn roads over every 23 years.
“That would be optimal,” Weiss said. “But right now we are doing it every 40-45 years.”
Finding a fix
Patrick Gavinski, Sauk County highway commissioner, said the solution resides in funding.
“We did get a slight increase in our local transportation funding and that’s going to help,” Gavinski said. “What helps to keep the roads functioning well is ongoing maintenance, because preventative measures lengthen a road’s life.”
However, when state funding stays stagnant, the rising costs of labor and materials impacts county budgets.
“So we end up having to do less with the same amount of money,” Gavinski said. “Ultimately we are forced to make decisions based on funding not based on what we would prefer to do. Safety takes precedence, and we are stretching the length of time the roads need to be replaced. But the freeze-thaw cycles we get here are hard on pavement. If we aren’t doing preventative maintenance, it’s going to significantly decrease the roads' overall performance.”
Becky Kikkert, director of office of public affairs for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said the DOT uses 15 criteria to determine pavement condition for state highways, as well as a comprehensive, industry-accepted system of pavement analysis.
“The department issues standard specifications annually to help contractors understand definitions and expectations throughout the bidding and contracting processes,” Kikkert said.
Kikkert said the department has prequalification and quality control processes to ensure competency and responsibility from pre-bid through the completion of work.
Still, DOT workers could be found installing several “Rough Road” signs along Highway 78 in March, at the request of motorists; many who say they can’t drive at the posted speed limit because of the road’s rough condition.
Local municipalities affected by the road, including the town of Merrimac and the villages of Prairie du Sac and Merrimac, issued a joint resolution, along with the Sauk Prairie School District, about the need for the road to be fixed and safety concerns.
Sauk Prairie Ambulance director Kevin Weber said the service makes regular trips from Devil’s Head Ski Resort in Merrimac via Highway 78 during the winter months to Sauk Prairie Hospital, and it is a “very uncomfortable ride” for patients.
“With the bumpiness, it’s hard for them to stay comfortable while we are transporting them,” Weber said. “Of course that pertains to any patient. And I’m sure it’s not good for the ambulance or the equipment.”
Weber said while they try to do as much as they can for a patient on-scene, sometimes procedures have to be done en route.
“With all the jostling, it’s impossible to get an IV in someone on that stretch,” Weber said. “We would have to pull over.”
Kikkert said the DOT is aware of Highway 78 and DOT engineers have been on site to examine the condition of the roadway and are preparing both immediate and long-term projects to address the pavement cracking and heaving.
“Maintenance work will be performed in 2018 to help mitigate pavement issues for the near term,” Kikkert said. “A more substantial construction project is currently being designed. The DOT is working to advance that project based on the conditions of the roadway and recent input from the village.”
When asked if the solution rests in a gas tax increase, registration fee increase, tolling or something else, Fedderly said, “All of the above.”
“In order to sustain long-term funding, we need an increase in our gas tax," Fedderly said. "But should it be our fundamental source of income 20 years from now? No. But today, it is.”
He said registration fees should also be considered, as should tolling and even a mass-transit system.
“They all have to be considered as a solution to the problem,” Fedderly said. “Citizens need to talk to their legislators and make sure they understand there is no putting this off anymore. (Gov. Walker) is portraying an archaic viewpoint in terms of raising the revenue limit. The longer we deny the problem, the worse it becomes for the next generation.”