OPINION Roads have a lot to do with how well Wisconsin’s agricultural economy performs. Rural roads are key to moving materials and stock to farms, produce from farms, and families to and from farms.
Many city dwellers find taking country roads exciting because of the beautiful views they encounter. But as many people who live on country roads know, these days travelers take their eyes off the road at their own peril. One glance at a beautiful country vista and a pothole might damage the vehicle.
Wisconsin’s roads in 2010 were rated among the best-three out of the 50 states, according to a list compiled by the Reader’s Digest to aid travelers. But by 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that each motorist in Wisconsin spent an average of $637 due to costs caused from driving on roads in need of repair. Wisconsin’s roads in 2018 were rated in the worst-10 out of the 50 states by U.S. News & World Report. We don’t need to drive far in Wisconsin to see how bad many of our roads have become.
Good rural roads are essential for moving produce to market. Seed, feed and fertilizer don’t arrive at farms via drone; they come via roads. Many farmers are bringing urban folks to farms by selling directly to consumers. Breakfast-on-the-farm events are popular all across Wisconsin. People and farm products don’t move without a good system of rural roads.
Proposals to fund the repair of Wisconsin’s roads include raising the gas tax, increasing registration and license fees based on vehicle weight, and implementing toll roads. Often urban roads receive the most money and attention while rural roads in more-sparsely populated parts of Wisconsin deteriorate. Some local governments are increasing taxes and borrowing money to attempt to fix more roads themselves instead of waiting for more funding from the state.
In far-northern Wisconsin the Bayfield County board has approved borrowing more than $1.6 million dollars to finance about 9 miles of road repairs in 2020. The final solution to Wisconsin’s rural-road problem for agriculture may well be a combination of revenue sources for road repair, increase of shipping via rail or water where possible, and local and regional sales of products directly to consumers. Some solutions like toll roads may work in urban areas, but they won’t work in rural areas.
This past year the Wisconsin Legislature approved, and Gov. Tony Evers signed, a transportation budget that increased spending on roads. The roads in Wisconsin didn’t go from being among the best in the nation to being among the worst in the nation in a year. The current transportation budget won’t instantly fix Wisconsin’s roads. Think of Wisconsin roads as a big pothole. The current transportation budget has filled part of the pothole, but it will take several years to fill all the potholes left in our system of rural roads. Every pothole in our rural-road system that is filled will improve our rural economy.