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Wisconsin mayors urge Congress to pass spending plan for infrastructure

Joman Schachter makes his way down the Yahara River in an inner tube at Tenney Park in Madison on Aug. 23, 2018. Mayors from Madison and other cities throughout Wisconsin on Thursday held a discussion of how local governments could use money their due to receive from a proposed $3.5 trillion federal spending plan to combat flooding, clean up water supplies and pursue similar projects.(Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

A group of Wisconsin mayors is calling on Congress to pass a spending plan they say could help prepare Madison for future flooding, stave off shoreline erosion in Sheboygan and fund local road repairs throughout the state — projects that will be too large to take on without federal help.

The mayors of Madison, Racine, Sheboygan and Wausau gathered for a news conference Thursday to explain how the $3.5 trillion spending bill now before federal lawmakers could benefit their cities. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan is now being debated by Democrats, who hold the slimmest of majorities in Congress. Party leaders are seeking to trim the proposal to $2 trillion in an attempt at appeasing moderate members.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said any of the figures Congress is discussing would result in the largest investment seen in cities like Madison in recent history. For that reason, she said, local officials are hoping federal lawmakers will find a way toward agreement.

“Local government does not have the luxury of not getting stuff done,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We have to deliver the water. We have to pick up the trash. We have to plow streets. We have to provide services to our communities every day. So it is frustrating to see Congress going back and forth and up and down and not making any progress.”

The spending plan contains various provisions related to infrastructure projects. It, for instance, would put $20 billion toward replacing lead water pipes, nearly $15.5 billion to a greenhouse-gas-reduction fund and $10 billion to provide public transit near affordable-housing projects. It would also offer $5 billion worth of block grants to environmental and climate justice projects, $2.5 billion for solar projects in low-income neighborhoods and $2.5 billion to clean up abandoned mines.

Rhodes-Conway said local officials could use federal money to pay for improvements to stormwater systems to help prepare Madison for flooding of the sort that struck the city in 2018, causing more than $150 million in damage. 

Following the flood, Madison began mapping its watershed. Although city officials are less than halfway done with that work, they’ve already identified tens of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure work that’s needed to Madison’s stormwater system to avoid the worst expected consequences of future flooding, Rhodes-Conway said.

Legislative-imposed levy limits have made it nearly impossible for Madison to do that work on its own, she said.

“Our budget simply cannot support that,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We don’t have the room under our levy limit if we continue to borrow for these types of investments the debt service alone would swamp our budget.”

Likewise, Sheboygan Mayor Ryan Sorenson said the federal plan could help her city maintain its 200 miles of local roads. Other proposals would fund Community Development Block Grants and pay for workforce housing and other priorities.

Racine Mayor Cory Mason said city officials could use the federal money to pay for the millions of dollars of infrastructure work that’s needed to protect the city’s stormwater system from the sorts of large storms that are expected to become more frequent in coming years as a result of climate change. Money could also help the city pay for controlling erosion on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Congressional leaders have set Oct. 31 as their deadline for voting on the bill — although that could be postponed as negotiations continue.

“We cannot go it alone,” Mason said. “If we want to have a resilient lakefront, we need to build something that’s more resilient to protect us from the change that is occurring.”

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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