MacIver News Service | July 7, 2017
By Bill Osmulski
[Grant, Wisc...] Local governments are responsible for maintaining local roads, but through current transportation funding mechanisms, many push that responsibility onto the state, and then argue for even more financial help.
During the current budget debate, lawmakers like Representative Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) argued local roads in her district are falling apart and the state isn't paying enough towards their maintenance.
"The local road aids is not going to make a significant dent in the backlog of roads that they need to replace and repair," Shankland told DOT Secretary Dave Ross during agency briefs on March 29th.
However, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's guidance to local governments explains that state aid is simply meant to help "offset" local expenses. It does not supplant the local government's responsibilities.
GTAs, or General Transportation Aids, "provide local governments with a partial reimbursement of funds to offset the cost of county and municipal road construction, maintenance, traffic, and police costs," according to WISDOT.
This year, locals received that "offset" in the form of either $2,202 per mile or 15 percent of their total transportation related costs. DOT automatically pays them whichever rate is more. For some communities that choose to spend very little on road maintenance, the per mile payment can equal more than half of their total transportation expenses.
For example, the Town of Grant is responsible for 116.13 miles of road. In 2015, it spent a total of $502,050 on transportation related costs, and it received $255,718 in GTAs. That means the state paid for over half of Grant's local road repairs in 2015. You wouldn't know it listening to Rep. Shankland, though.
"At this point, they expect all the roads in their area will be gravel and I am hearing this from people all over the state," she said describing the situation in Grant.
The state is well aware that communities like Grant will use the mileage rate to push as much of local transportation costs onto the state as possible. That's why it limits the total GTA payment to 85 percent of the locals' three-year average costs.
Even when the cost sharing formula is used to determine the GTA payment, cities tend to get far more than just 15 percent of what they paid for road maintenance. That's because the formula has a very generous definition of what a "transportation-related expense" is. Twenty-six percent of all local law enforcement expenses is included in the transportation aid formula. Locals also ask the state to pay for storm water management costs, the street lighting electric bill, and "capital outlays," which includes things like DPW buildings.
The cost sharing formula also encourages local governments to take on debt. It rewards them for making debt payments, but does not include the borrowed money as a revenue.
As a result, the City of Milwaukee got $23.6 million in GTAs for 2015, while it only spent $40.7 million on actual street maintenance. That's 57 percent.
While most transportation aid is distributed through GTA, the state has other programs to additionally help locals with road expenses as well. The Connecting Highway Aids program provides another $12 million, County Forest Road Aids provide $284,700, and the Local Roads Improvement Program (LRIP) provides another $25 million for local road construction.
Last year the Local Roads Improvement Program provided $20,000 toward an $86,000 county road project that runs through the Town of Grant.
The Wisconsin Towns Association says 73 percent of town roads in the state need major repairs. That would cost $1.4 billion, plus another $333 to $435 million annually to then maintain them. WTA says this problem cannot be fixed in a single biennium, which suggests it's the state's problem to fix.
Wisconsin statutes provide some local solutions for transportation funding. Local governments may levy vehicle registration fees and additional property taxes for roads and bridges.
There is no wheel tax in Grant. Special assessment are permitted under local ordinances, though not widely used.
Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal would have provided locals with even more funding. His plan would have boosted GTAs by 6.8 percent and LRIP by 25 percent. However. The Joint Committee on Finance tossed that proposal in April, and decided to start from scratch. Transportation funding is proving to be the most contentious part of the budget.