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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : opinions : opinions
February 26, 2020

2/11/2020 7:30:00 AM
Our View
Crumbling roads and Tony Holes represent failure at all levels of government
Gregg Walker and Richard Moore
Publisher and Columnist

In a story in today's edition, Minocqua town chairman Mark Hartzheim was quoted as saying he could not remember roads being in as poor a shape as they are right now.

He's not alone. Everyone knows it. Everyone talks and complains about it. The problem is, no one is doing much about it.

And that's a failure of leadership at all levels of government.

Oh sure, there are some government trucks out on the highways trying to put Band-Aids on gushing wounds, but we all know it is far too little, too late. Even highway officials tell you there's only so much they can do this winter for even temporary solutions.

And so we hold our breath as we drive along our roads and highways, swerving and dodging, weaving and bobbing, like children in bumper cars, hoping we won't disappear down some massive government-designed crater in the road, otherwise known as a Tony Hole.

That's Tony as in Gov. Tony Evers, and the pothole potluck that is northern Wisconsin starts with him.

That's because the damaging and costly potholes we see in our region are in large part due to the governor. The Tony Holes you slam into every day start at the top, with Tony himself.

Let's remember that in the last budget the governor vetoed a provision that would have provided $90 million in general-fund revenue for local-road aid, most of it intended for rural road repair. He slashed the aid to $75 million and then ordered the Department of Transportation not to allocate any of it, apparently until he could figure out a way to steal from the North our fair share.

What he came up with was even worse than the $15 million direct cut. Ultimately, the governor created a grant program that can be used for any so-called "transportation" project, including in Milwaukee and Madison.

Now, as the MacIver Institute has reported, local governments are coming with their hands out for projects such as bike paths and pedestrian walkways - neither of which have to do with road reconstruction and maintenance. Madison asked for $50 million - the requests far outweigh the actual dollars available - none of it for roadwork. As MacIver observed, Green Bay wants a million dollars for paths but also nothing for roadwork.

So much of the millions and millions intended to help repair the Tony Holes that are shaking and baking the brain in your cranium every day will go to non-road government follies, and mostly to cities rather than the rural areas for which the dollars were intended.

Another north-to-south transfer of wealth, thanks to Gov. Tony Hole.

Speaking of a transfer of wealth, while the governor in his budget succeeded in choking off money we need to fix crumbling roads, he wanted to cause even more damage to the North by increasing the gas tax. The state's gas tax, already one of the highest in the nation, is an egregiously unfair tax for the North because we travel farther distances and use more gas per capita. Massive downstate road projects gobble up our contributions.

The bottom line is, we send more of those tax collections out of the region than we gain in return. So while our Tony Holes grow ever larger, our gas taxes represent another transfer of money from our pockets to downstate.

Foxconn is once again a poster child. Last spring, it was reported that the state had already spent more than $225 million on roads around Foxconn, with $155 million for local roads and $167 million for Interstate 94 still in the pipeline.

None of this was a surprise, and a lot of it happened during Scott Walker's tenure as governor. As far back as 2018, the Legislature Fiscal Bureau reported that Foxconn would siphon off between $70 million and $90 million from other road projects, with the condition of state roads expected to deteriorate over the next decade.

Well, it's happening. At least in the current budget the GOP tried to increase funding for local, rural roads, but Gov. Evers only poured gasoline on the fire by proposing higher gas taxes and slashing the funds for rural areas.

Thankfully, the GOP stopped the nonsense that was a higher gas tax, and the Republicans did something else that was long overdue and included in their budget - a study on tolling, a necessary first step in the transition to tolling on major southern Wisconsin highways and interstates.

This requires federal waivers, but the process should have occurred years ago. Wisconsin is far behind other states, and its reliance on the gas tax is the major reason the tax is so high.

Drive through other tolling states, and in some there's not even toll booths, just license plate readers that result in a bill in the mail that can be paid online.

The fact is, northern Wisconsin is unfairly funding maintenance of downstate major highways, while we bounce around on our imploding Northwoods' roads, barely able to keep our socks from flying off. Tolling would require the commercial interests that are the primary users of those highways to pay their freight.

Tolling would also allow the gas tax to be reduced at least to the national average, and it would allow the North to keep more of its collections at home for our own road repair.

But the governor vetoed the provision. He likes his Tony Holes.

Finally, the governor would make this worse for northern Wisconsin by reinstating a prevailing wage that drives road construction costs higher. The GOP has thankfully blocked this return.

We don't just blame the Evers administration, as much as he deserves it. Congress has failed to repeal the federal prevailing wage, known as the Davis Bacon Act, which also artificially inflates road construction costs. This should be a priority for the next congressperson from this district.

Our local legislators also have to shoulder part of the blame for allowing unfair taxes and unfair distributions of road aid that punish the North to go unchecked.

Yes, we understand that northern legislators don't have the votes to stymie the power of the southeastern Republican and Democratic cliques. But over the years they should have been making - and should be making - vocal arguments for equity. They should have been - and should be - exposing the policy biases against us.

It shouldn't take a pothole revolution to get them to issue a press release.

Local officials should be more vocal, too. For example, is the Lakeland area getting its fair share of county highway dollars? Will road reconstruction money, which the county just budgeted a whole bunch more for, make its way fairly to our side of the county?

And what about the past? There is a lot of talk about planned projects in the county, but have Oneida County's road reconstruction projects been evenly distributed, or have they been concentrated in the Rhinelander area? We're not saying that's the case, but we do expect our town leaders know what the reality is, and act forcefully if it's not.

Just in case, we plan to look into it ourselves.

Finally, with respect to the county, we find it appalling that over the past several years the talk around highways has centered on the need for a new highway facility. That the county has been falling behind on road maintenance is certainly no surprise to anyone who has attended county highway department meetings; officials have been loud and clear.

But some on the county board have been so obsessed with spending more than $10 million for a new government building that road needs have become subordinate to the pursuit of ever more bells and whistles for government.

For bureaucrats come first, while the cars of average people are reduced to so much Flintstone rubble.

We are in a highway crisis. The condition of our roads is intolerable. For that to end, and to end quickly, voters throughout our region must make it a point to contact their local and state leaders and let them know that it will quickly become politically intolerable for them to continue to do nothing.

As for the governor, well, every time we hit a Tony Hole, we feel it. Now it's time to make Tony feel it, too.





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