As lawmakers continue to struggle over how to fund the state’s transportation budget, drivers are contending with bridges that have deteriorated to their worst condition since 2003, according to Federal Highway Administration data.
While the majority of Wisconsin’s bridges are still in perfectly acceptable shape, the average condition of the state’s bridges have declined over the past decade, as have the number of bridges earning the government’s top ratings, a trend highway officials and legislators attribute to stagnant funding that’s failing to keep up with aging infrastructure.
“It all boils down to the fact that we need to look at how transportation is funded, how our infrastructure is funded, and figure out a way that we can eventually broaden that base of revenue so we can keep up with maintenance,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna.
Overall, Wisconsin’s bridges have improved significantly since 1992. Then, almost 25 percent of bridges in the state were deemed structurally deficient, a designation that indicates a bridge has one or more structural defects that require attention. That number has dropped significantly over time, ranging from 8 percent to 10 percent over the past decade. In 2016, 1,228 of the 14,230 bridges in the state, or 8.6 percent, were found to be structurally deficient.
But while the number of structurally deficient bridges has held relatively steady over the past decade, the average structural fitness of the state’s bridges has been declining since 2008. The National Bridge Inventory rates the structural fitness of a bridge from 0 to 9, with 0 indicating the bridge is closed and 9 indicating its status is superior to desirable criteria.
Since 1992, about a quarter of Wisconsin bridges were rated an 8 or 9, the best two designations on the evaluation scale, peaking at around 27 percent from 2006 to 2008. By 2016, that number had fallen to 19 percent, the lowest in the span of the data.
The percentage of bridges that are “basically intolerable” meanwhile increased slightly from 2.5 percent in 2008 to 3 percent in 2015 and 2016. That slight increase on the low end only accounts for about 100 of the state’s 14,230 bridges. But combined with a general slide in ratings, the average bridge rating has decreased from a high of 6.5 in 2008 to 6.3 in 2016, the lowest since 2003.
For the most part, Wisconsin’s bridges are converging in the middle range, creating the potential to significantly swell the number of bridges in poor condition in coming years, requiring more of them to close or impose weight limits.
“I think it’s the trajectory that you’re talking about that should be the most concerning even more than the status that we’re at,” said Wisconsin Transportation Development Association Executive Director Craig Thompson.
The main concern with the deteriorating condition of bridges isn’t safety — it’s commerce. Bridges are inspected regularly, and those in very poor condition are posted with weight limits or closed as needed. Those closures and weight limits can have a significant impact on agriculture, timber and other commerce that involves transporting heavy loads.
“It can add a lot of cost to a shipper, a business that’s trucking, or an ag operation if they have to add 20 miles or more to a circuitous route,” said Jason Culotta, Senior Director of Government Relations at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
The number of bridges posted with weight limits has already more than doubled since the mid-2000s, hitting a high of 875, or 6 percent of bridges, in 2015 and 2016. County Highway Administration Executive Director Dan Fedderly said that’s both due to declining bridge conditions and recent increases in the amount of weight trucks are allowed to carry. Some bridges end up posted simply because they weren’t designed to carry that much weight.
Why the decline?
Legislators and highway officials mainly attribute the decline in the state’s bridges to stagnant state and federal funding that has failed to keep up with aging infrastructure and increased construction costs.
While gross transportation fund revenue has increased an average of 2.4 percent each year over the past decade, officials say it has failed to keep up with rising construction costs. Whereas Fedderly said he used to have 10 to 12 bridge projects going at once when he was a highway commissioner a couple decades ago, it’s now common for counties to only have one or two.
One key element leading to low revenue growth was the decision to do away with gas tax indexing in 2006. Indexing provided automatic annual adjustments in the tax rate from its inception in 1985 until it was repealed two decades later. Since the final 2006 adjustment, the Legislature hasn’t made any changes to the 30.9 cents per gallon rate. Automobile vehicle registration fees have meanwhile held at $75 since 2008.
“Basically none of that has changed in a decade. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that you’re going to fall behind,” said Thompson, whose organization is pushing to increase the gas tax.
Instead of increasing transportation revenue, the state has continued to take on transportation projects by borrowing more, setting the stage for this year’s budget battle. The state budget is more than a month overdue and Republicans controlling both houses have yet to come to an agreement about how to fund the transportation budget. Assembly Republicans have opposed new borrowing and are pushing for increasing revenue, while Senate Republicans have opposed new revenue, in line with Gov. Scott Walker’s statement that he would veto a gas tax increase.
“Republicans have been in control of the Legislature for six years and Republicans have not made it a priority to have a long-term sustainable funding situation,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. “In the past few budgets, we’ve limped through by borrowing more money.”
Problem ‘not going away’
Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Pyritz said the current budget under consideration will allow the state to “continue addressing the most critical needs and adapt to the needs of the aging bridge population.”
Walker’s proposed 2017-19 budget does include increasing aid for local bridge improvements by $6 million over two years, a 35.6 percent increase in state contributions to the program, which receives most of its funding from federal dollars.
Culotta called the funding helpful but said “a bigger number probably would make sense.” And some legislators, like Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, don’t believe the budget will end up doing enough to address the issue without raising revenue.
“Obviously, it’s not going away,” Nygren said.
“You can’t close your eyes and wish it to go away. It will still be there two years from now when we have our budget conversation again,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement that he and the Republican caucus are working to develop “long-term policy solutions from revenue sources like open road tolling to an overhaul of our transportation industry guided by the findings of the legislative audit of our state highway program.”
That January audit found the Department of Transportation significantly underestimated cost estimates for major highway projects and hasn’t done all it could to streamline processes and use its funds more efficiently.
But Assembly Republicans emphasize that improving efficiencies at the DOT alone is not enough to address the issue.
“I think we’re all kidding ourselves if we don’t realize that long term, even after we enact all the reforms that we can, that we’re going to have to make investments into our infrastructure to kind of catch up from the years when we weren’t able to do enough,” Steineke said.