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Maintenance bill highlights lack of road money

By Paul Snyder

A bill that would give Milwaukee County the freedom to ask the state for more road maintenance money for the winter is the latest fallout from state transportation budget cuts.

“This is being driven by the money being transferred out of the transportation fund,” said state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale. “It’s creating these kinds of problems.”

Stone’s bill would let the county ask the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to restore a 2009-11 state budget cut of nearly $1.3 million that would have gone to Milwaukee County road maintenance.

If the committee were to approve the request, transportation money scheduled to be transferred to the state’s general budget would go to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and then the county.

The bill would set a March 31 deadline for the county to request the money for snow and ice removal.

It’s nice to have a cushion for the season, but the money problems won’t end with the spring thaw, said Jack Takerian, Milwaukee County’s acting transportation and public works director.

WisDOT contracts with various counties to maintain the state county trunk highway system, he said, but the state budget cuts mean maintenance such as pothole filling and crack sealing likely will drop next year.

“There’s a domino effect you’re going to see immediately,” Takerian said. “We got a memo saying, ‘Don’t do preventative maintenance, only reactionary.’ So pothole problems are going to be absolutely magnified, and a lot of issues are going to continue into summer.”

WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said agency officials would not comment because they had not yet reviewed Stone’s bill.

Maintenance budget cuts affected many counties beyond Milwaukee County, and many of those counties are worried they will spend all or most of the reduced cash on snow and ice removal, leaving little for maintenance beyond winter, said Dennis Osgood, La Crosse County highway commissioner.

“Everybody has a problem with snow,” he said. “Milwaukee County has always seemed like its own state, but the fact is the state’s not funding enough maintenance anywhere.”

Stone said he singled out Milwaukee County because he represents the area. It’s up to other counties, he said, to lobby for a similar bill or for other lawmakers to add on to his bill or create their own.

“I don’t want to blow up the state budget,” he said. “But keeping roads safe is a priority, and we have to maintain a certain level of effort.”

With the complexity and traffic volumes on the Marquette Interchange, Zoo Interchange and the Interstate 894 bypass, Takerian said, Milwaukee County deserves extra protection for its roadways.

But he said the bigger issue for Milwaukee and other county highway departments is getting support from WisDOT. The agency, Takerian said, has not publicly announced the road maintenance cuts, and, he said, county highway departments should not have to face what could be an angry response from motorists.

“Ultimately, they own the roads and how they’re maintained, and that does not equal the county not keeping up,” he said. “If they reduce their level of service to the public and come out and say that’s the direction they’re heading, then as a taxpayer and their contractor, I can deal with that.”

But if the result of maintenance budget cuts is a string of bills asking for more money for individual counties, Osgood said, the state needs to reconsider its spending priorities until there is more money available.

“You can’t keep building new,” he said, “if you can’t afford to take care of what you’ve got.”

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