By Andrew Burger for Watchdog.org
There are 14,275 bridges in Wisconsin – 1,054, or 7.4 percent, are classified as being structurally deficient, which means that one of their key elements is in poor or worse condition. That’s up from 1,043 in 2014, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s (ARTBA) 2019 Bridge Profile.
States across the U.S. are working to come up with ways and means of carrying out repairs or upgrades to existing public infrastructure, as well as carry out new projects. Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation has identified 1,955 bridges in need of repair at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion, according to ARTBA’s report. That’s down from 1,984 in 2014.
“Wisconsin has an ongoing, rigorous inspection and maintenance program designed to spot issues well before they turn into major public safety concerns. The net change of 11 bridges in this category means there are additional structures in the inventory that now receive closer attention – beyond the standard inspection schedule – to help prioritize any immediate needs and long-term solutions.
“Falling into this category does not mean unsafe or ‘undriveable.’ The department maintains current structural evaluations to ensure all bridges can safely accommodate the traveling public,” Kristin McHugh, director of public affairs for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), said.
A mix of local, state and federal sources fund bridge and transportation infrastructure projects in Wisconsin, Jason Stein, research director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said.
“Bridges and other transportation infrastructure in Wisconsin is paid for by using various state and local taxes and fees, including gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, which can be state and local, and property taxes at the local level,” Stein said.
“In addition, state and local governments borrow for road and bridge projects and in some cases also receive federal aid,” Stein said. “There have been constraints on some of these revenues, including the lagging growth in gas taxes because of factors such as more fuel efficient cars.”
McHugh cautioned against inferring too much from the $1.4 billion estimate for bridge repairs, which Wisconsin DOT provides to the Federal Highway Administration as part of the National Bridge Inventory program. She explained that the estimate is a result of using “a prescribed replacement formula designed to give a ballpark idea of the financial impact of replacement.
“While the replacement calculations are accurate in that context, they would be considered hypothetical for planning and programming purposes,” McHugh said. “This is because the department would typically explore a host of much less costly rehabilitation and repair options, where viable, to extend the useful life of infrastructure and enhance the return on taxpayer investment.”
Local imposition of wheel tax registration fees and funding challenges at the state level have raised the question of whether state and local governments need to increase taxes to carry out bridge and transportation infrastructure projects, drop some projects or some combination of both, according to Stein.
“Transportation is one area within the state budget where Gov. Evers and lawmakers may be able to find bipartisan agreement – perhaps to raise new revenues to address outstanding projects. But we haven’t seen proof of that so far,” Stein said.
DOT’s McHugh provided some reassurance.
“Wisconsin gives the highest priority to bridge projects, as well as bridge safety. The department will continue to weigh needs against available resources to maximize the public investment in quality infrastructure,” he said.