Why are Wisconsin's highways in the bottom third nationwide?

Poor pavement condition and high spending mean the state isn't getting top value from its highway dollars

By ROBERT W. POOLE JR. | September 4, 2019

Wisconsin’s highway system falls in the bottom third on a respected annual ranking of highway performance: 38th out of 50 states. Not only that, but its ranking has dropped 10 spots since 2013, when it was in the middle of the pack at No. 28.

The annual ranking is produced by the nonprofit Reason Foundation, a nationally known think tank. It measures highway performance by means of 13 quantitative indicators, dealing with pavement condition, traffic congestion, highway safety and spending.

The data in the 24th Annual Highway Report come from state departments of transportation, as reported every year to the Federal Highway Administration. So the Wisconsin numbers are the ones submitted to the feds from the state DOT itself. This year’s report uses highway data from 2016, the most recent year with complete figures available, along with traffic congestion and bridge data from 2017.

Wisconsin does best on highway safety; it’s in the top third of all states in having low fatality rates, a commendable achievement. It does worst on pavement quality, ranking between 35th and 45th in the four categories of pavement measured. It scores in the middle on congestion and structurally deficient bridges.

The overall rank of each state is a measure of bang for the buck — how much good performance a state highway system can achieve per dollar spent. Alas, Wisconsin ranks in the bottom third (i.e., very high) on three of the four spending measures. That, plus the poor pavement condition scores, overwhelms the generally good safety scores, resulting in the overall rank of 38th.

All state DOTs face the same challenges: how to get as much value as possible out of the dollars available. One possible explanation for the combination of high spending but poor pavement quality is that Wisconsin’s maintenance spending per lane-mile is relatively low, while capital and administrative spending per lane-mile are quite high. Better ongoing maintenance would lead to better pavement condition. Roads and bridges would not wear out as quickly and need to be replaced at high cost. But it is hard for legislators to resist spending money to build projects in their districts that lead to a ribbon-cutting — rather than plain, boring maintenance.

Wisconsin rural Interstate pavement conditions rank 44th — close to those of basket cases like New York, Connecticut and California. Interstates in those states are wearing out, and some still need widening. They need to be rebuilt more durably, with guaranteed maintenance to protect the investment of billions of dollars it will take to do this.

A good way to accomplish this would be to do as the Indiana legislature plans to do: use toll financing and long-term public-private partnerships (PPPs) to hold the developer/operator of the replaced Interstates accountable for performance. Long-term PPP agreements commit the provider to meet annual pavement quality metrics for the duration of the agreement — at its own expense. Delegating stewardship of the Interstates to accountable professionals would have the additional benefit of freeing up existing state and federal funding for Wisconsin’s non-Interstates, to bring the low-scoring rural and urban arterials up to snuff and keep them properly maintained going forward.

The national highway report card from Reason Foundation should serve as a wake-up call to Wisconsin voters and legislators that the state’s highway system is seriously underperforming.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation and author of Rebuilding and Modernizing Wisconsin's Interstates with Toll Financing. He is a visiting fellow at the Badger Institute.

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