Good roads paved the way for Wisconsin’s rise to the top of the dairy world a century ago.
Milk needed to travel from the farm to a bottling plant or cheese factory and on to the customer in short order. This meant gravel gave way to hard-surfaced roads in rural Wisconsin.
Today, milk’s prominence remains. Dairy products contribute about half of the $88 billion that agriculture contributes to Wisconsin’s economy each year. Dairy’s economic importance to Wisconsin is more than what potatoes mean to Idaho and citrus means to Florida, combined.
In addition to cattle, Wisconsin still grows a bounty of things: corn, cranberries, cabbage, cherries and carrots, to name a few.
For all of the changes that farming has made during the last century, its reliance on the transportation system has not changed.
Wisconsin finds itself at a dangerous and daunting crossroads and our problem is two-fold. Our lawmakers and governor can no longer put off reconstructing our crumbling roads and bridges. Nor can they delay fixing the way we fund the state, county and town transportation system. It is imperative that they start this process in next year’s state budget.
Highway projects near Milwaukee and Madison receive most of the media’s attention, but the situation is dire on rural town and county roads and bridges. Like the rest of the state’s residents, Wisconsin’s farm families and rural businesses need new solutions and a safe way to transport their goods to market; however, this is not just about the business of moving product. There are school buses with children on roads ranked as some of the worst in the nation.
There is an old farm adage that painfully fits the predicament that Wisconsin finds itself in: you reap what you sow. For too long we’ve delayed making infrastructure improvements, raided the state’s transportation fund and borrowed like there is no tomorrow.
A nonpartisan Transportation Policy and Finance Commission found that if no new funding sources are found, Wisconsin’s transportation fund is at least $650 million short every year going forward, and that is predominantly to fund state highway projects that have already been approved. Hundreds of millions more are needed for local roads and bridges.
Like driving full speed down a dead-end road, if we do nothing, Wisconsin’s deteriorating roads and budgetary shortfalls only get worse.
This is a new position for the organization that I lead. While Farm Bureau is usually for lower taxes and fees, we also see the need to fix roads from the end of the driveway to the state line.
The gravity of this situation leaves us no choice but to address it head on. Please ask your legislators to do the same. Any solution must put the needs of local roads and bridges on the same level as major highways.
Tough decisions await when it comes to transportation, but the bottom line is that it’s time Wisconsin finds a better path.
Jim Holte is a grain and beef farmer from Elk Mound and has been president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation since 2012.