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Thompson on right road at WisDOT

If you’re looking for a sign of the need for more road money in Wisconsin, here it is: The Wisconsin Department of Transportation recently sought applications from local governments for one-time grants to improve infrastructure.

The DOT made a total of $75 million available. Individual grants are capped at $3.5 million a project.

So how many applications did WisDOT receive? A total of 1,600 eligible applications.

The total sought: $1.4 billion. Goodness knows, we’d love to see some of that grant money come to western Wisconsin.

Craig Thompson, who oversees WisDOT, said: “The process truly demonstrates the significant needs of the local system. It’s pretty staggering when you see the actual number of projects and their dollar value.”

This is the result of 20 years — under both Democrat and Republican administrations — of not adequately paying for our roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

As Thompson said during a visit last week to the La Crosse Tribune editorial board, “We’ve been mistaking financing for funding.”

Part of the result is that for every dollar we spend on highway projects in our state, 20 cents goes to pay debt. That means when it comes to road roughness, Wisconsin rates in the bottom five states nationally.

That’s nothing to be proud of — and vehicle owners, including businesses, have the repair bills to show for it. Wisconsin has 115,543 miles of public roads, from interstates to streets. Ninety percent of those roads are the responsibility of local governments. The rest — 11,745 miles, including 876 of interstate freeways — is the responsibility of WisDOT.

And although the state is responsible for only 10.2% of all public roads, those roads carry more than 58% of the state’s travel. The state Legislature, even as it has declined to raise the gas tax, has approved an increase registration fees and title fees and plans to use the revenue raised for roads.

Thompson has been in his position for more than a year but has yet to be officially confirmed by the Senate. One thing he hasn’t done is let the delay get in the way of his making progress. His accomplishments include everything from carrying out a department reorganization to adopting a six-year highway improvement program.

Clearly, there are many more road needs than there is money to pay for them. That’s why Thompson and WisDOT need to streamline processes and set priorities that throw out projects that haven’t gained consensus.

Although some money is still in the plans for a north-south corridor in La Crosse, for instance, don’t expect that to be the case for long.

Thompson meanwhile says he supports plans to add a second Chicago-to-Twin Cities train through La Crosse, and says Wisconsin will continue working with Minnesota on the project, as reported by the Tribune recently.

Thompson is very familiar with our highway needs — both statewide and in the Coulee Region — because of his many visits here as longtime executive director of the Transportation Development Association in Wisconsin.

He will soon become the next president of the Mid-America Association of State Transportation Officials. One of his tasks in Wisconsin now is to reduce the number of single-bid road contracts — a difficult undertaking, because it’s another sign that road building hasn’t been a priority in our state.

But Thompson knows all about the difficulties we must overcome — and seems to be taking those on in the right order and with the right spirit, even though he has yet to be confirmed secretary of WisDOT.

– La Crosse Tribune

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