Will Federal Funding Reach Rural Roads

This is an update from WI State Senator, Howard Marklein, on how federal funds are being channeled to Wisconsin’s infrastructure.

The Federal government recently made headlines by announcing that $5 billion will be sent to Wisconsin for roads and infrastructure. I was intrigued because roads are one of the hottest topics in the 17th Senate District. Everywhere I go, I am encouraged to invest in and prioritize roads. I wholeheartedly agree.

In fact, in the most recent state budget, we invested an additional $100 million for local, rural roads and increased General Transportation Aids (GTA) in both years of the biennia. This investment will go a long way toward improving our infrastructure. The Wisconsin Towns Association (WTA) said that this is the best budget for town roads in the history of our state. I am proud to have led and supported this effort.

Now, the federal government announced that they are adding to our resources to fix roads. This is great news. But, as with most big announcements like this, it is important to understand the details.

The most important detail is that the $5 billion they announced includes $4 billion in funding we already expected from the feds in a baseline appropriation that we usually receive. Therefore, the “new” money is really $1 billion and it is spread over five years. So, in reality, we can expect about $200 million in additional road funding each year for five years.

Don’t get me wrong – an additional $200 million for roads is great news!  This is definitely not something to dismiss. But, again, the details matter.

Some of this new federal funding has a very short, compressed timeline for us to meet. To access some of the money, we need to have it obligated by September 30, 2022. In order to accomplish this, DOT set an initial project deadline of April 1, 2022 and the next project deadline is June 3, 2022. This means that we need to have plans and engineering done in just a couple of short months during the height of construction season in Wisconsin.

It also involves a much more complicated process and requirements than some small municipalities, like towns, have managed in the past. Federal money is never “free.” It almost always has strings attached to it and unique requirements that we do not have at the state level. This is a new experience for many smaller towns.

Fortunately, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) is working hard to help municipalities and counties to access these funds and spread this new investment in infrastructure to communities all over the state. I recently met with Craig Thompson, Secretary of the DOT to learn more about the plan they will be proposing to the legislature.

Secretary Thompson has connected with the groups that work with local governments to get ahead of this process while the federal government works out the details. He said that their intent is to dedicate the majority of the new federal funding to local governments in Wisconsin. While I appreciate their efforts to provide funding to local governments for local projects, I also understand the challenges we face to expedite planning, meet deadlines and manage inflation.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have connected with several of our county highway commissioners and municipal leaders. Chris Narveson (Green County), Craig Hardy (Iowa County) and Dan Rielly (Lafayette County), have told me that inflation is significantly impacting their road construction plans. Costs are way up! We are not getting as much bang for our buck and cannot do as much work – for the same money – as we have in the past.

But that isn’t stopping them from working hard to improve roads with the investments we made in our state budget and to access the new federal funds.  

I am optimistic that the DOT, in concert with the WTA, the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities (LWM), will find ways to support our local communities in pursuit of this increase in federal funding. Keep in mind that most of this funding will be applied to projects that will begin in the 2023 construction season. Don’t expect additional orange cones and detours this year.

However, you will see plenty of construction and road work this summer. With the massive investments we made in our Wisconsin budget this year, local road work is already beginning all over the state. While we may grumble when we are delayed or detoured, it is important to remember that all of the work done in our short Wisconsin construction season makes a huge difference throughout the year.  We’re putting more than $1.2 billion in state dollars into local, rural roads over the next two years. This will make a noticeable difference in our communities.