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Milwaukee weighs street spending increase

By Sean Ryan

A $3.3 million increase for Milwaukee’s local roads budget is an improvement, said city officials, but falls far short of what’s needed for a project backlog.

“We didn’t get into this backlog overnight,” said Alderman Joe Dudzik, chairman of the city’s Capital Improvements Committee. “We’re not going to get out of this backlog over the next couple of years.”

Milwaukee is spending $12 million this year on local streets. The city’s Department of Public Works on Thursday gave the Capital Improvements Committee a draft budget request to boost spending to $15.3 million next year.

City officials for the past two years have tried to raise more money for street paving after a 2008 audit showed 214 miles of Milwaukee’s residential streets need repair or reconstruction. Local street construction and maintenance work is not eligible for state and federal grants.

“It will take some time to catch up,” City Engineer Jeff Polenske said. “But at the same time, we are recognizing that this is something that we need to deal with.”

Cal Raab, a machine operator for MJ Construction Inc., Milwaukee, uses a backhoe to break up the road surface in preparation for a sewer line replacement project along National Avenue between 11th and 12th streets in Milwaukee. (Photo by John Krejci)

Cal Raab, a machine operator for MJ Construction Inc., Milwaukee, uses a backhoe to break up the road surface in preparation for a sewer line replacement project along National Avenue between 11th and 12th streets in Milwaukee. (Photo by John Krejci)

Polenske said 2011 would be the start of a six-year plan to keep annual spending between $15.3 million and $13.3 million for local roads, for a total of $85.8 million between next year and 2016.

Some of the increased money comes from a new wheel tax, or a tax on car registrations issued to city of Milwaukee residents. That money source, which became available for the 2009 budget, has helped the city pay for projects on streets where residents opposed paying assessments for the work, Polenske said.

In addition to the $85.8 million six-year spending plan, $2.1 million would be collected in assessments on property owners.

Alderman Jim Bohl, who sponsored the bill that created the Capital Improvements Committee and wheel tax, said the city is moving in the right direction, but is still falling well short.

According to the 2008 audit, the city must spend at least $42 million annually to keep up with street reconstruction needs and eliminate its backlog. But annual spending needs can be reduced if the city spends more on maintenance that extends the lives of the roads, Bohl said.

“It’s not only what you spend in dollars,” he said, “it’s how you spend it.”

The draft streets budget includes $2 million for maintenance work for 2011.

Polenske said the department will refine its draft plan before the mayor and Common Council this fall start to develop the 2011 city budget.

Dudzik said the 2011 budget will create challenges for spending on city streets.

He said infrastructure spending is a tough sell to residents who do not immediately see the benefits, and he does not want to raise taxes to beef up the budget.

“My personal opinion is I don’t think it’s enough,” Dudzik said, “but we’re chasing a train — if you will excuse the pun — we’re chasing a train that is pretty far ahead of us.”

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