“Just Fix It” was echoed from every corner of the state on Sept. 29 when thousands of local government leaders and concerned citizens brought attention to an issue that has moved to the forefront on their “to do” list — namely finding a sustainable solution to our transportation woes.
“Turnout for Transportation” was hosted by local government officials in 70 locations around Wisconsin. A statewide local government meeting like this had never occurred before in Wisconsin’s 168-year history. That alone should tell people something. The level of frustration over our collective inability to address this most basic function of government spurred our county supervisors, city alderman, village trustees and town supervisors to provide leadership to move the dialogue in a positive direction.
In the 70 separate meetings held around the state there were, of course, many items voiced unique to the specific area, but there were also some very common themes that we heard again and again.
Some of those themes were:
• Local governments don’t have the resources to sustain local roads, harbors and bus systems. This creates inefficiencies by requiring more frequent repairs and shortening the overall “life” of the road.
• The worsening condition of our highways and streets is a drag on the local economy.
• In the face of stagnant state transportation funds and property tax limits, local leaders are forced to use less-than-ideal options to simply maintain what they have, including borrowing money and asking our grandkids to pay for our roads today.
• The longer we delay these improvements the more we jeopardize safety.
• Local leaders support efforts to streamline the regulatory process in order to make sure every single dollar is used efficiently and effectively.
• Attendees also shared significant concerns with mobility options for seniors and people with disabilities. With the obvious demographic shifts upon us this demand will grow appreciably.
What was also interesting about these meetings was that many business and civic leaders who are not local elected officials took the time to turn out for transportation too. Our agricultural community, tourism community, manufacturers, real estate agents and loggers showed up and shared their frustrations with the condition of state and local roads.
Local officials in Wisconsin run on a non-partisan ballot. In a time when it seems that elected officials all line up on one team or the other, local governments are still about problem solving. They are too busy worrying about the 911 center, or garbage pick-up or plowing the streets to view everything through an ideological lens.
Probably the single biggest thing we heard from our members and the citizens from all the different business sectors that participated on Sept. 29 was that this is a problem we all see and all want resolved. It really shouldn’t be this hard. We are in this together from Superior to Kenosha. Our transportation system is just that — a system. We need the first and last mile maintained properly, along with bus systems, freight infrastructure and our major highway corridors. It cannot be an either-or situation.
Our state elected officials have plenty of thorny issues that lend themselves to legitimate ideological and partisan divide. Finding a sustainable solution to our transportation system should not be one of them. Thanks to our local elected officials, citizens all across this state had the opportunity to show up on Sept. 29 and share their stories and suggestions. But they also sent a very clear message that we plan to continue to carry to Madison — “Just Fix It.”
Mark O’Connell is the executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association. Jerry Deschane is the executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, and Mike Koles is the executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association. The three organizations co-sponsored the transportation meetings.