DARLINGTON, LAFAYETTE COUNTY — The condition of state roads in Democrat Kriss Marion's home county is a key reason she is aiming to unseat Republican Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, who currently represents her in the state Senate.
"I've been going to the Capitol and lobbying as a citizen for better roads for a long time," said Marion, who is a farmer and a Lafayette County supervisor. "Three years ago, I was in Howard's office and asking as a citizen, as a farmer, please direct some attention to our rural roads."
Marion and Marklein are vying for one of the most contested legislative seats on the ballot in Wisconsin this fall: the 17th Senate District, which includes all of Lafayette and Grant counties in the southwest corner of the state and portions of Iowa, Green, Richland, Sauk and Juneau counties. Nearly $3 million was poured into the district race in 2014, the most spent on any legislative race that year.
Both candidates agree road conditions in the district are dismal and more money is needed to properly update and maintain them. They joined more than a dozen local officials and county highway commissioners for a bus tour of problematic area roads and bridges Wednesday. The tour was sponsored by the Transportation Development Association, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group which has advocated for more transportation revenue in the state. The event was the fourth of its kind, aimed at raising awareness about the condition of Wisconsin's roads, particularly in rural areas.
Marklein said he is concerned about his district's roads and talks frequently with the county highway commissioners about how to improve them. State officials should listen to local officials and work with them more effectively to find efficiencies to save money, he said.
"We need more money for our roads," said Marklein, who said he is open to a gas tax increase. "I think everything should be on the table."
If the state finds or raises more transportation revenue, it needs to go to rural areas first, Marklein said.
"I want to make sure that if there's more money that is put into the transportation fund, that it comes to our rural areas. People would be pretty frustrated out here if the gas tax goes up and (it) all goes to southeast Wisconsin," he said. State officials also need to listen to local officials who maintain the highways on behalf of the state, and understand what works best and what is needed.
"We need to listen to them and get that information and policies incorporated into the Department of Transportation," he said. Local officials "know what works and what doesn't out here, and I think a lot of times that message doesn't get to the Department of Transportation. I think the DOT has requirements in some cases that are too rigid, some of the cases we just saw today in terms of flexibility and bridge design. And in other cases there are things (DOT) won't consider paying for."
The group, led by Lafayette County Highway Commissioner Tom Jean, was ushered around in a coach bus traversing winding and hilly farm roads along yellowed corn fields and farms in Lafayette County. Jean pointed out one state road, Highway 78 southbound leading into the town of Argyle, that is cracking less than a year after it was re-paved. County officials will fill the cracks with liquid rubber this fall, Jean said.
"This particular stretch of road was planned to have something done to it in 2009 and 2010. We just got it done last year," Jean said. "We're glad that it got done. It really needed to be done but at some point in time more should have been done to it to give it a better surface."
This type of road repair has become more frequent as the state has opted for thinner overlays — the outermost layer of a road — to save money, Jean said. But that often costs more in the long-term as the state pays for more fixes sooner after a road is first repaved. The increasing price of repair materials also drives up costs.
"Crack filling is a really big maintenance item for all of the counties," Jean said. "It keeps the moisture out of the roads, but as you can tell, this one needs quite a bit of crack filling."
He also noted bridge repairs that county officials say are costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars more because of a new state Department of Transportation program implemented this year.
County officials say they are frustrated by the program, which puts a cap on state funding for bridge repairs. In some instances, county officials say they want to realign the road to better fit a bridge entrance or widen it to accommodate it to make it safer. Before this year, the state would pay up to 80 percent of the cost to make those kinds of safety improvements. Now it pays about half of that.
The bus stops and Jean points out a bridge on County U road. The state will only pay for minimum standards to fix it, but Jean wants to widen the bridge by 4 feet to accommodate farm equipment traffic. He estimates it will cost Lafayette County about $450,000 to make that fix.
"We're going to have to pay for all of that ourselves out of our own pockets," he said. "That cuts into my budget on other (road) projects."
The comments from local officials Wednesday about the need to fix state roads and raise more money to do it prudently are a contrast to the picture painted by Gov. Scott Walker on the issue. Walker has maintained that his administration has funded local roads at record levels in his last budget.
But last month, the DOT released a report showing that spending has fallen across every road program, including major highway development and local road aid.
Chris Narveson, the highway commissioner for Green County and chairman of the town of New Glarus, said road funding rhetoric needs to be put into perspective. He acknowledges there have been increases in the state budget to local road aids but when you break it down, the increase is minimal. Green County is one of several counties that has implemented a wheel tax to raise road revenue locally.
"We're trying to get as much road done as we can, so we'll do one-mile segments," he said. That approach is not sustainable or cost-efficient. He wants it to change, and that will drive him to the polls in November.
"It is a voting issue," he said. "It has to be ... the roads suck."