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View from around the state: Audit adds fuel to fixing state roads

VeronaRoad_klh Rush hour traffic commutes along Verona Road Tuesday, Jan. 24 in Fitchburg. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Rush-hour traffic travels along Verona Road in Fitchburg on Jan. 24. A project to fix the road had a price tag of $150 million in 2011, but as of last fall the reconstruction totaled $280 million — nearly twice the original estimate. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

A state audit last week reinforced the need for Wisconsin to take better care of its roads.

Sturdy, safe highways will require more money from a reliable source of revenue — something Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers must accept.

The audit of the state highway program identified some potential savings, but nothing remotely close to the nearly $1 billion shortfall in the Department of Transportation’s next budget.

The state’s gas tax hasn’t been increased in more than a decade, producing flat revenue that can’t cover the rising cost of construction and maintenance.

The portion of state highways in good condition fell from 54 percent in 2010 to just 41 percent in 2015, according to the Legislative Audit Bureau. At the same time, those roads in poor or worse condition increased from 7 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2015. And they’re projected to more than double to 42 percent in a decade.

Wisconsin’s highways are “considerably” worse, the audit found, than those in six other Midwestern states and the nation as a whole.

“A long-term solution is needed,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said. “It’s clear Wisconsin is trying to do too much with too little, and taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.”

He’s right.

Many road projects wind up costing far more than the DOT originally estimates, the audit showed. The Verona Road project southwest of Madison’s Beltline, for example, had a price tag of $150 million in 2011. But as of last fall, the reconstruction of this vital artery for commuters, truckers and fast-growing businesses totaled $280 million — nearly twice the original tally.

The DOT has failed to properly account for inflation, according to the audit. Another factor is construction delays — caused by state leaders — that unnecessarily drive up expense.

Verona Road already has been delayed once because state leaders didn’t think they had enough money to finish it on time. Now the governor wants to stall it again, which would cost taxpayers more in the end.

Added expense also came from higher-than-anticipated traffic counts on Verona Road, which convinced the DOT to add lanes and a bigger intersection. In addition, the DOT was surprised by higher cost for acquiring real estate in the area.

The DOT must do a better job at planning expenses.

But state transportation officials aren’t the only ones failing to account for inflation. The governor and Legislature have done the same thing by capping the state’s gas tax at 30.9 cents per gallon for a decade — even as motorists drive fewer miles in more fuel-efficient vehicles, meaning they pay less.

The audit shows state highways are deteriorating faster than they’re being fixed. The solution is solid funding for a modern transportation system that collects reasonable user fees from drivers.

— Wisconsin State Journal

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