When I campaigned for the honor of becoming Waukesha County Executive, I was very clear that my priority is to help Waukesha County become the epicenter of economic development in Wisconsin. I work every day to make that happen, but one major issue threatens to stall progress here and across the entire state of Wisconsin: crumbling roads and aging infrastructure. Our transportation system is in crisis and the time has come to take action.
Just last month we announced a public-private partnership with the Waukesha County Business Alliance to create a new economic development organization. We don’t even have a name for this new organization, but we’ve already surveyed hundreds of businesses and asked them to rank the most important factors they would consider if they were relocating their business. Their top answer, right behind workforce availability, was roads.
In fact, more than 80 percent of respondents said the number one service a community could provide was the creation of a good, safe and sustainable network of roads that allow for the efficient transport of employees, customers and goods.
In spite of this overwhelming desire from business owners, conditions on Waukesha County’s 3,000 road miles – and in every county across the state – are getting worse, not better. To be blunt, the funds simply do not exist to maintain our roads, and that must change.
This crisis is 10 years in the making. A decade ago, Governor Doyle and lawmakers in Madison made a big mistake. They diverted transportation dollars to the general fund just after they eliminated automatic gas tax indexing. Not only did they raid the transportation budget, they neglected to create a sustainable funding system. Today, the future they failed to plan for is here.
As a lawmaker, I was proud to support Governor Walker’s effort to repay those raided funds. In 2014, I was also proud to support an overwhelmingly popular constitutional amendment to protect the transportation fund against future raids. Those were important steps, but our road crisis remains and is getting worse each day.
As a conservative, I believe we need to be frugal with tax dollars. Government is not the entity of first resort to solve society’s problems. However, I won’t deny that the core function of government is to provide what the private sector cannot. Specifically, our core responsibilities include: public safety, infrastructure, helping those who can’t help themselves or need access to temporary assistance.
A solid transportation network hits all three of those points.
As we look to Madison for responsible investment in the creation and maintenance of a safe and effective network of roads, we need to look at both revenue and spending. We should encourage innovations in road building and maintenance procedures that are more efficient and cost effective. Reforms, such as prevailing wage, and potential efficiencies identified from the ongoing audit of the state highway program will help. However, a way to increase our road budget must be resolved.
We can’t stand still. And we can’t borrow our way out of this crisis.
As we work to build a world-class, thriving economy - not just in the region, but in the entire state - state policymakers must take a long, hard look at the future of our infrastructure needs and ensure we adequately invest in them. The success of every economic development endeavor, like the one we’re launching here, is dependent on that.
Tough decisions are ahead, but I believe our public officials in Madison are up to the task. We can’t kick the can down the road anymore - it’s stuck in a pothole.
Paul Farrow is the county executive of Waukesha County.