Wis. Bridges Need Repair as Feds Fund Bike Paths

According to the Federal Highway Administration there were 1,198 structurally deficient bridges and 772 functionally obsolete bridges in the state of Wisconsin as of December 2013. Eighty-one of the structurally deficient bridges in Wisconsin are part of the National Highway System, which, according to the federal government, is made up of “the Interstate Highway System as well as other roads important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility.”

Despite the repairs needed to modernize and strengthen these bridges, the federal highway trust fund has required the state of Wisconsin to spend millions of transportation aid dollars on bike paths, archeological research, and pedestrian walkways and trails.

There were 75 structurally deficient National Highway System bridges in Wisconsin in 2012, and 4 of those were replaced, according to a 2012 document from the Federal Highway Administration. The estimated cost of replacing all of the aging bridges was $218,324,963.50.

That figure is strikingly close to the amount of federal transportation aid sent to Wisconsin over a 20-year period for walking trails and bicycle paths and lanes. Between 1993 and 2013 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation received $210,036,175 from the federal government for non-highway projects.

While the Wisconsin DOT has frontline responsibility for roads and highway infrastructure, federal transportation policy dictates how state transportation officials spend federal highway aid. Right now, the federal highway trust fund is facing a serious cash shortfall.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the highway trust fund – which gets its money from the federal gas tax and highway user fees – will run a deficit of $58 billion over the next four years.

Two Republicans, Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Reid Ribble, from Wisconsin have joined other conservatives in Washington to propose the Transportation Empowerment Act, a bill that would phase down the federal gas tax and give states more power over transportation policy.

Over time the amount of money spent from the highway trust fund on non-highway projects has increased. In 1956 the fund was established by Congress to collect revenue that was to be spent specifically on highway construction and maintenance.

“Each year, highway users pay billions of dollars in highway excise taxes, which end up in the federal Highway Trust Fund,” a fact sheet on the Federal Highway Administration’s website explains. “Federal legislation requires generally that funds paid into the Highway Trust Fund be returned to the States for various highway program areas in accordance with legislatively established formulas.”

Thanks to evolving policy decisions and mandates, over a quarter of the trust fund’s annual outlays are spent on non-highway projects despite the fund’s original purpose.

According to a compilation of recent federal data by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, Wisconsin ranks 33 in the nation for states with the most structurally deficient bridges as a percentage of total bridge structures. The lower a state is on the list, the better its bridge infrastructure is relative to other states.

The most traveled structurally deficient bridge according to the ARTBA review of federal DOT data is a stretch of US-43 just north of Capitol Drive in Milwaukee. That bridge has 106,700 crossings each day. A bridge on US-41/US-45 in Washington County that handles 71,200 crossings each day is the second most traveled structurally deficient bridge.

Fixing heavily worn bridges and transportation infrastructure is a priority for state lawmakers. State Rep. John Nygren (R), co-chairman of the legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, told Media Trackers that, “Transportation funding will be one of the greatest challenges lawmakers will have to face over the next decade.”

Nygren said that state officials would like to see the federal government ease up on some of the restrictions that currently accompany federal highway aid dollars. “If the federal government eased mandates on uses of federal funds for transportation, Wisconsin could improve our infrastructure and meet growing demands of our economy and motorists.”

The Johnson-Ribble backed plan to scale back federal mandates seems like a long shot to becoming reality with divided partisan control of Congress. If Republicans did capture the Senate this fall, however, skillful Congressional negotiation could possibly bring the plan to pass even with a Democrat-controlled White House.

An Associated Press report from December of last year only mentioned that 60 bridges in the state were listed as deficient or fracture critical, and state transportation officials said they had repaired or closed 13 of them and planned on fixing an additional 27. The 2013 figures listed above are from a more recent federal survey than the AP appears to have had access to at the time.