Local Transportation Infrastructure Needs Grow as Funding Capacity Shrinks

By Ben Juarez

Many times in life we have possessions that we take for granted; something that we might invest in, and are proud of when it is brand new. Over time it begins to lose its luster because it has always been there, and – in our minds – it is always going to be there. Then something happens. All of the years of wear and tear have finally taken enough of a toll that you have little choice but to replace your once-prized possession. Sure, you maintained it well, but it has reached a point where it has “given up the ghost,” as some car mechanics might say.

In the Public Policy Forum’s latest report on transportation infrastructure, A Fork in the Road?, the idea of public possessions, i.e. capital assets, is explored through evaluation of both current conditions and ability to pay. The report focuses on City of Milwaukee streets and bridges, Milwaukee County trunk highways (CTHs) and trunk highway bridges, as well as County buses. A primary finding is that while we are not in a state of crisis, our financial capacity is shrinking as capital rehabilitation and replacement demands increase.

Our analysis finds that the City, despite successful recent efforts to reduce its street replacement cycle from more than 100 years to 60 years, still has some rough waters ahead. Over half of City streets are in poor or fair condition, and while a new High Impact Paving Program has provided a temporary fix for certain heavily-travelled streets, the list of streets needing full rehabilitation is growing.

With regard to City bridges, we find that 24 currently have one or more structural or functional deficiencies, and 22 of those have sufficiency ratings that qualify them for federal rehabilitation funding. While that means that up to 80% federal reimbursement may be available, the 20% City share gets expensive considering the cost of major bridge projects.

The County finds itself with fewer immediate needs involving its highways and bridges but it faces a monumental challenge with regard to its fleet of more than 430 buses. We find that almost a third of those buses have surpassed the federal replacement funding threshold of 500,000 revenue miles, with 39 of those buses exceeding the threshold by 100,000 revenue miles. County transportation officials estimate that bus replacements could require an average of $13 million of local funding annually over the next five years, which would represent nearly a third of the County’s overall borrowing capacity.

Because both entities have few revenue options outside of property tax levy-backed borrowing, meeting their transportation-related capital needs may require shifting dollars from other governmental functions or simply deferring action on those needs. Neither solution would be good for users or taxpayers.

This report is the first in a series of reports on local government infrastructure. In future reports, we will conduct similar analyses of water and sewer infrastructure, buildings, and other infrastructure owned by our largest local governments. After we have greater understanding of this collective set of local government infrastructure, we then will turn to the question of what new policies or strategies might be considered to address both current needs and future challenges.