Lawmakers and highway commissioners in rural Wisconsin counties testified on Tuesday in favor of a bill to allocate more than $308.5 million in federal money to improve crumbling highways and bridges.
The Assembly Committee on Transportation gathered for a public hearing on Assembly Bill 238, which would allocate more than $308.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to local highways and bridges.
The $1.9 trillion aid package, signed into law in March, included stimulus payments, unemployment aid, help for small businesses and assistance for states. Gov. Tony Evers said Wisconsin is to receive $3.2 billion of the federal relief funds.
Last week, Evers vetoed a bill that would have given Republican legislators oversight of that money. He instead released his own plan to allocate $200 million for infrastructure improvements, including extending broadband service.
The authors of AB238 want to require Evers to allocate more than $308.5 million of the federal dollars to road and bridge improvements. The bill would provide $2 million for each county and $2,000 for every highway mile for local governments.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation would be in charge of awarding the grants. Eligible projects could not be in line to receive federal money other than funding coming from the American Rescue Plan Act. They must also be qualified to receive from local bridge or road improvement programs or entail the sort of work that would increase the load-bearing capacity of bridges.
A member of the Legislative Council said states are still expecting to receive more guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury on how the money can be spent.
Rep. Calvin Callahan, R-Tomahawk, said the bill is serving as a directive to Evers to make infrastructure repairs a priority. He said improving roads is a top concern of his constituents.
“I know these funds would have a huge benefit to folks around the state and would continue the progress to improving our local roads made in the last state budget,” Callahan said.
Larry Bierke, county administrator in Iowa County, and Roger Petrick, Richland County highway commissioner, testified that they haven’t got enough money to maintain crumbling local roads. Both counties have an ongoing backlog of projects. Petrick said Richland County has $29 million in repairs to make and only receives $120,000 a year.
“Highway commissioners have been given the task to repair roads with a stale budget and an ever-increasing product cost,” Petrick said.
Although lawmakers said Tuesday they aren’t sure how federal guidance will affect the bill or its path forward, they acknowledged the need for infrastructure improvements statewide.
“What we’ve seen here today is a bipartisan agreement that we need to invest in our roads and infrastructure,” said Rep. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay.
Meanwhile, WisDOT is relying on nearly $210 million in other federal aid to close a budget deficit caused by COVID-19. A deficit and distribution plan submitted to lawmakers in February said the money will allow WisDOT to cover the $172 million deficit in the transportation fund and allocate about $25 million each year to highway rehabilitation and local roads.
In addition, Evers’ 2021-23 state budget would spend nearly $2 billion on highway rehabilitation, $565.7 million on highway development and $941.9 million on transportation aid for counties and municipalities. Those amounts could change as Republican lawmakers revise the budget before sending it back to Evers.Follow @WLJReporter