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Local officials: Unanswered questions about bridge plans part of pattern of silence at WisDOT

Local office holders say they have been waiting for weeks for answers to questions about a Wisconsin Department of Transportation plan calling for historically high spending on state bridges.

Local governments say one of their biggest questions concerns whether they will be placed under costly federal regulations by WisDOT’s Local Bridge Improvement program, which calls for spending $115 million on 183 bridges in the state. Another is whether WisDOT has placed any sorts of internal limits on its contributions to those sorts of projects.

Some officials say the agency’s silence has been all-too typical as of late. Local governments have been waiting for a year and a half to learn whether a WisDOT program that pays for rural road projects will get off the ground or not, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. Separately, officials are similarly frustrated by a WisDOT policy change that caused $43 million to go missing from local budgets this year.

Fedderly said the agency has repeatedly stonewalled attempts to learn about its plans.

“The department hasn’t given any specific guidance,” he said. “Counties are getting anxious about getting some of that information.”

Gov. Scott Walker has boasted that his bridge plans call for a historic level of spending. In a statement in June, Walker said the bridge budget this year would receive the largest increase it has seen in 20 years.

But uncertainty surrounding WisDOT-supported projects has simmered for years, local officials say.

The agency’s Surface Transportation Rural Program, which contributes a mix of state and federal money to rural road projects, has been on-hold for a year and a half. Local officials say they aren’t sure why. Fedderly said WisDOT has ignored his repeated questions about its plans and hasn’t provided information about what projects will receive money.

WisDOT did not respond by press time on Friday to requests for comment.

La Crosse County Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain said his county applied for money for a $5.2 million project to rework a 2.7-mile section of highway in the county but has yet to learn if the request was approved.

“I have no way of knowing when or if we’re going to get that at this point in time,” he said.

This year, two projects in La Crosse County qualified for WisDOT’s local-bridge program. Chamberlain said he has asked state officials how they plan to cap the state’s contributions to those projects and how WisDOT is setting up its change-management process, along with various other questions.

Chamberlain said local officials have yet to hear back and are no longer waiting. Safety demands that they move quickly. Of the bridges in La Crosse County that need repairs, one has a hole in its deck whereas another is on a heavily traveled road.

Even so, beginning these projects without answers to some basic questions is a risk. Local officials, for instance, might learn after beginning work that they were relying on the wrong design and construction standards. If that were to happen, they might also find that, because WisDOT’s contributions are capped, they have to cover the cost of making the necessary changes.

“Do I have concerns with how these projects will proceed? Yes,” he said.

Fedderly said the governor’s bridge plans might lean on a policy passed in the latest legislative session allowing WisDOT to replace federal money with state money on some projects. A swap of that sort can eliminate some of the costly regulatory requirements that come with the use of federal money.

Because of that policy, $38.6 million worth of state money was moved recently into the bridge program, allowing the agency to pay for an additional 70 bridge projects. Federal money was meanwhile put into a the State Highway Rehabilitation Program.

Even though this swap was likely done to cut federal red tape, WisDOT nonetheless sent counties language suggesting their projects may be subject to federal standards. Fedderly said local officials are now puzzled about why they would have to abide by federal rules.

“Why would we do that?” Fedderly said. “The whole desire of this legislature was to find efficiencies (in infrastructure projects).”

Portage County Highway Commissioner Nathan Check said the bridge improvement program includes money for an $850,000 project to rework a bridge over the Plover River in the county. The county received an agreement in mid-September from WisDOT that would guide the use of the money.

Like many others, Check has asked WisDOT to clarify what standards the county should follow and hasn’t heard back.

“We’re in a holding pattern until we get an answer from DOT,” Check said.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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