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Column: Wisconsin’s commitment to reliable public roads has long history

Wisconsin’s commitment to good roads and reliable transportation goes back more than a century and is built into our identity.

We would not have become the Dairy State if farmers did not have a reliable way to get milk from farms to bottling plants and cheese factories. Dairy farming doesn’t quit in winter, and cows don’t take a day off.

Out of necessity, gravel roads gave way to pavement as Wisconsin invested in infrastructure and made our state stand out in the Midwest for its ease of reliable travel.

Agriculture, industry, and tourism are the state’s economic pillars; each relying on good infrastructure. For decades, Wisconsin’s proud commitment to make our state easy to travel strengthened all parts of our economy and enhanced our way of life.

Thanks to a strong bipartisan effort, we are getting back on track and making the most of our resources to serve Wisconsin. The direction we are taking is an important first step for fixing our roads.

Gov. Tony Evers signed a Transportation Budget that cuts the level of borrowing and finds efficiencies in government. It invests an additional $320 million in state highway improvements, which is part of $465 million in new funding. It provides a 10 percent increase in available funding for general transportation aids paid to local governments and, at the same time, represents the lowest level of bonding in the last 20 years.

This budget allows us to drive forward with more than 1,200 miles of highway repair and more than 35 bridge projects that otherwise would have waited years longer. These long awaited projects are based in more than 58 counties across Wisconsin and will improve safety and mobility around the state.

Wisconsin’s economic future does not rely solely on roads, and we are supporting the efforts of local governments to build options that work in their communities. The current budget supports all modes of transportation including harbors, railroads, air traffic control systems, and transit projects for the disabled, seniors and others.

By leveraging federal grants and finding efficiencies, we are improving passenger rail service along the Hiawatha Line and extending its reach through bus service along the I-41 Corridor to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, the Fox Valley and Green Bay.

These successes come from leadership and a commitment to make state government work better for the people of Wisconsin. Here are some of the achievements of 2019:

  • Safety is our highest priority. We brought back and rebranded the “Zero in Wisconsin” campaign to remind drivers to follow speed limits, buckle up, and avoid distractions. We are grateful that traffic deaths in 2019 were at a five-year low and we will continue to make every effort to remind drivers that we can be, and should be, more careful out there.
  • We have acted to stop the decline in road conditions and moved toward sustainable funding for Wisconsin’s transportation needs.
  • To better serve our local partners, we are piloting a new program that cuts red tape and reduces costs for local bridge repair. Straightforward bridge repair that can be done without serious environmental risks should not have to wait
  • Internally, the Department of Transportation expanded its Lean Government program to save or avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars of costs per year and put staff hours into where they are most needed. For the first time in years, the Department of Transportation is conducting risk-based internal audits and program reviews to improve efficiency and compliance.
  • For the first time in five years, Gov. Evers convened the state’s Transportation Projects Commission (TPC). The bipartisan group of legislators and citizen members reviews the status of major highway studies and projects. In their last meeting, they agreed to remove three studies, saving taxpayers money. The TPC also improves transparency and communication between the Department of Transportation and the state legislature.

Our work reflects the values and hard work that paved our roads in the first place. Safe, efficient transportation moves goods and services, gets people to work and school, and brings tourists and travelers to their destinations.

As we move ahead into 2020, and beyond, we will continue to look for innovative and cost-saving ways to take care of the roads and bridges that connect us and to expand what our infrastructure offers. This year marks an important first step.

We are not there yet, but transportation in Wisconsin is moving in the right direction.

Craig Thompson is the WisDOT Secretary-designee.