Evers Opens Up Road Funds To Non-Road Projects And The Requests Flood In

Locals ask DOT to pay for bike paths, a scenic overlook and converting railroad station into a museum.

Jan. 13, 2020 | MacIver News Service

By Bill Osmulski

Money set aside specifically for local road repairs fed a free-for-all cash grab after Gov. Evers’ diverted it into a new grant program open to any local “transportation” project.

That opened the door to dozens of local pet projects, some of which are tourism projects that have nothing to do with transportation.

Gov. Evers created this program, called the “Multimodal Local Supplement program” (MLS), with $75 million the legislature budgeted for the Local Roads Improvement Program (LRIP) using his veto pen. On Thursday, the Department of Transportation announced that the new program received $1.5 billion in grant requests, but the program has a budget of only $75 million.

The non-road requests include a pedestrian underpass, bike paths, bus shelters, and equipment purchases. Requests for bike paths/pedestrian walkways alone hit $50 million.

Many of those requests clearly have more to do with tourism than with transportation, such as West Bend’s $4.1 million downtown riverwalk and the Potawatomi Tribe’s $600,000 ATV trail. However, some requests seemingly have nothing to do with transportation at all. The City of Spooner wants $3.9 million to renovate an old railroad roundhouse into a tourist attraction (See picture above). The Village of Belleville wants $542,000 to restore their old train depot into business space. The Town of Solon Springs wants $347,500 for a scenic overlook.

Madison had the largest single item request. It wants $15.6 million for transit. Interestingly, Madison did not submit any requests to help with roadwork. Its only other application was for $4 million for the Autumn Ridge multi-use path. Madison is not the only big city that submitted requests that excluded roads.

Sun Prairie also had no road-related requests, but is asking for over $8 million for walking paths. Janesville wants $1.6 million for walking paths and a bus station, but nothing for roads. Green Bay is asking for almost a million dollars for paths, but nothing for roads.

The City of Two Rivers is also in this club. It wants $1 million for bike paths, $2.4 million for a dockwall repair, but nothing for roads. However, during the budget debate in 2017, City Manager Greg Buckley argued that the state needs to raise the gas tax because “major highway projects are getting delayed, and local maintenance and reconstruction efforts are inadequate.”

Other communities that summited grant requests that exclude roadwork include: Ashwaubenon, Belleville, Bellevue, Black Earth, Dodge County, Glenwood, Howard, Lisbon, Mercer, Merrimac, Phillips, and Wrightstown.

While some might consider many of the projects on the list frivolous, taxpayer-funded lobbying groups point to the $1.5 billion list in Wisconsin as evidence the state needs to invest more in transportation.

Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, called it “a clear, undeniable record of the unmet needs.”

“The needs are unquestionable, and while we realize this one-time grant program is not a long-term answer to more than a billion dollars of reported local community needs, it is a significant step in the right direction,” added League of Wisconsin Municipalities Executive Director Jerry Deschane.

Despite Deschane’s comments, the MLS is not exactly a “one-time grant program.” Gov. Evers diverted $90 million away from the Local Road Improvement Program for the MLS and additional education funding. If he hadn’t done that, all the money would have gone to local roads.

The applications will now be scored based on a variety of criteria including economic impact, connectivity and cost effectiveness. After that, DOT Sec. Craig Thompson will approve the final award recipients.