Some Dane County communities are objecting to what they say is undue pressure from county officials to take over local sections of county highways that are slated for reconstruction and located in areas that are becoming increasingly urbanized with new development.
The dispute over such “jurisdictional transfers” is not likely to go away anytime soon, as local governments look for ways to pay for the infrastructure improvements required by a steadily growing population. City and village officials also point to the $28 vehicle-registration fee the county started imposing in 2018 as evidence that the county should have the means to continue taking care of its roads.
A mile-long stretch of Buckeye Road (Highway AB) on Madison’s East Side, 1.5 miles of Fish Hatchery Road (Highway D) in Fitchburg and a three-quarters-mile stretch of Highway DM in Windsor are among the routes currently in line for reconstruction that the county has proposed turning over to their respective municipalities. If the municipalities agree, they would be responsible for future reconstruction, snow plowing and other maintenance costs.
This week, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and six City Council members introduced a resolution calling on the county to drop its policy to consider transferring ownership when a county highway is reconstructed within a city or village.
“In practice, this policy has been implemented in a more uncompromising fashion, forgoing a reconstruction project when a municipality has refused the transfer of ownership,” the nonbinding measure says.
Josh Wescott, chief of staff to county executive Joe Parisi, questioned the need for the Madison resolution, saying that in the case of Buckeye Road, the county has since backed off of its transfer request.
“That’s a pretty significant concession by the county,” he said, “keeping county taxpayers on the hook for significant costs over the life of that city street.”
Wescott has said the county’s policy is common elsewhere in the state — although that doesn’t appear to be the case in the state’s other most populous counties.
“Brown, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Waukesha and Racine counties do not require jurisdictional transfers,” said Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s cities and villages.
He said there’s a statute from the 1950s that allows Milwaukee to do the transfers and was intended as a way to “facilitate the construction of the interstate system,” but it “hasn’t been utilized since.”
There’s “no automatic jurisdictional transfer that occurs when a county or rural highway becomes more urbanized,” said Rock County administrator Josh Smith, although county officials broach the subject with municipalities. Winnebago County also doesn’t require the transfers, but “we try to work with the cities and villages to take jurisdiction of urban roadways within their boundaries,” said highway commissioner Raymond Palonen.
Marathon County highway commissioner James Griesbach said the county requires jurisdictional transfers “if a section of road is turned over to a city or a village,” but there hasn’t been one in the county for years and “in past history we haven’t forced anyone into a (jurisdictional transfer).”
Bob Wipperfurth, president of the village of Windsor and the Dane County Cities and Villages Association, acknowledged that Dane County’s policy isn’t new, but he also doesn’t think the county “has forced the issue that much in the past.”
“More than just Madison is frustrated with the county on this issue,” said Aaron Richardson, a Fitchburg alderman and candidate for mayor.
Fitchburg city administrator Patrick Marsh said Fitchburg doesn’t want to take over responsibility for Fish Hatchery when it is reconstructed over the next three years at a cost of about $22 million, but he didn’t think the county’s demand was unusual.
But “some of our alders, some of our elected officials, believe it’s a regional corridor,” he said.
Ten of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have wheel taxes, and Dane’s is the second-highest after Eau Claire, according to the state Department of Transportation. None of the cities or villages in Dane County levy the tax.
“On the one hand they want the money,” Wipperfurth said, “and on the other hand they want to give roads away.”
Wescott said the need for extra money is driven by the increasing number of lane miles the county is responsible for every year. The county has reached three dozen jurisdictional transfer or road-maintenance agreements with cities or villages since 2013, he said.
“That’s really the crux of the issue,” he said in an email. “These aren’t quiet rural roads anymore. Neighborhoods are built along them and understandably residents want sidewalks, slower speed limits, and bike lanes — road features not found with a county road.”
He said it doesn’t make sense, for example, for one of the county’s larger, tri-axle plows to remove snow on county roads that have effectively become residential streets.
“Whether it’s called a jurisdictional transfer ... or a maintenance agreement, there’s a bigger question here about regional collaboration and the smartest way for local units of government to meet a public service need,” Wescott said.
“These aren’t quiet rural roads anymore.” Josh Wescott, chief of staff to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi