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County caught between more and less roadwork

By Sean Ryan

Milwaukee County might take on more roadwork despite studies and theories suggesting there is a benefit to withdrawing from the business.

The county could save money if takes over some of the roadwork — such as paving, reconstruction and maintenance — now done by municipalities, said John Weishan, Milwaukee County Board supervisor. It might be easier to get federal project money if one county department does all of the work in the area, he said, especially when it comes to road projects that cross municipal borders.

“I would like to see Milwaukee County perform or at least be the controlling level for all road construction in Milwaukee County,” Weishan said. “Because there is so much lost in the process.”

That is the opposite of a study performed by the Public Policy Forum, a nonprofit research organization that on Wednesday released its analysis of what would happen if county government was dismantled. In terms of roadwork, according to the analysis, municipalities and the private sector could inherit the county’s responsibilities.

Milwaukee County government, like most county governments in Wisconsin, plows and maintains state highways through a contract with the state. Milwaukee County also is responsible for 343 lane miles of county trunk highways.

Maintenance work on the state highways could go to the city of Milwaukee, which has a large public works fleet, and each municipality could be responsible for the county trunk highways within municipal borders, according to the report.

Robert Bauman, chairman of the city’s Public Works Committee, said he does not like the prospect of taking over the county’s work on state highways.

“I would say not without a reordering of state highway priorities,” he said, “and a substantial increase in state and highway transportation money to municipalities to maintain their local roads.”

It would be irresponsible for Milwaukee County to suddenly back out of its roadwork responsibility without allowing a transition time so municipalities or private companies can prepare to do the job, said Jack Takerian, county interim director of transportation and public works. That does not mean the county cannot eventually shift away from that responsibility.

“We’re too complex in Milwaukee,” he said. “We’re a little bit different than you would see in some smaller communities.”

Bauman said there would be big problems if the county’s share of roadwork goes to individual cities.
“I don’t know that going from a single political subdivision to 15 saves money,” he said, “or even delivers better service.”

But the opposite might work, Takerian said. Rather than shifting the responsibility to cities, the county could absorb the all of the individual public works departments.

Taking on more work, more responsibilities, Weishan said, could be the best way for the county to save money.

“If you really, truly want to seek efficiency,” he said, “it’s not by pushing these things down to the municipalities. It’s about empowering government to work across municipal borders.”

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