Boots & Sabers

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1126, 22 Jun 15

The Cost of Transportation

The debate about the transportation budget in Wisconsin is still raging. Essentially, there isn’t enough money projected to come in to pay for all of the spending that the state wants to do. The governor wants to borrow $1.3 billion to cover the difference. The legislative Republicans want a combination of some borrowing, possibly some tax and fee increases, and possible some spending reductions. Some of that spending is being driven by the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, which is the state’s busiest intersection and critical to the state’s transportation system. That may justify some borrowing in the short term. But even outside of that, it’s hard for me to justify the level of spending that the state wants for transportation.

As the debate rages, there is one number that I can’t reconcile. According to Reason’s Annual Highway Report, the state spends $226,901 per state-controlled mile. That compares with a low of $39,403 per mile in South Carolina and a weighted average of all states of $162,202 per mile.

Wisconsin spends almost $65k more per mile than the average. Why? It is true that Wisconsin has to build roads differently than states in warmer climates because of the harsh winters, so that may drive up some cost. But let’s take a look at other cold weather states that manages to build their roads for less. Michigan spends $206,114 per mile. Iowa spends $133,409 per mile. North Dakota spends $95,898 per mile. Minnesota spends $132,230 per mile.

I have driven extensively in each of the states I listed that spend less per mile of state-controlled roads and their roads are fine. In the same report, North Dakota’s roads rank better in terms of performance and the other states are within spitting distance.

Looking into the details a little more, Wisconsin spends below the average for maintenance – $17,816 per mile as compared to a weighted average of $26,079 per mile. But Wisconsin spends 50% more than the weighted average on administrative costs per mile ($15,709 compared to $10,579) and 42% more for new roads and bridges ($122,272 as compared to $86,153).

What does the data tell us? Wisconsin spends far more than our neighbors on building new roads and administration and far less than our neighbors on maintaining the roads we have (the numerous accidents and damaged cars due to potholes on I-43 yesterday will attest to that).

Just imagine, if Wisconsin spent the same amount on roads per mile as Iowa – a state with similar weather and economic needs – Wisconsin would spend $1,098,967,932 less PER YEAR for the same amount of infrastructure ($93,402 less per mile multiplied by 11,766 miles of Wisconsin roads). That more than solves the budget problem. If fact, it would solve the $1.3 billion gap and save an additional $900 million out of the two-year budget.

Similarly, if Wisconsin spent the same amount on roads per mile as Minnesota, Wisconsin would spend $1,113,898,986 less PER YEAR on transportation infrastructure. Minnesota has almost the same number of road miles as Wisconsin (11,833 vs. 11,766) and manages to spend $94,671 less per mile. Is anyone going to argue that weather conditions in Minnesota make road building less expensive than Wisconsin?

So, as the transportation debate rages, I will not support any borrowing or tax increases until they take a serious look at the spending. The taxpayers should expect to get the same value for the same money because other states have demonstrated that it can be done.


1126, 22 June 2015


  1. Jadedly Unbiased

    Nice piece and I agree with your closing statement. I don’t think anyone could or would disagree. Do any of those states still have prevailing wage laws on the books?

  2. Jadedly Unbiased

    That’s interesting. Having recently traveled throughout Michigan I found their roads in better shape then ours, even though according to the numbers above, we spend more per mile. I wonder… why the cost difference?

  3. old baldy

    MN and MI (at least the UP and northern part of the LP) comparisons are valid. IA and ND aren’t due to weather, soils,etc.

    WI has had expensive roads since “Transportation Tommy” Thompson made that a campaign slogan in the late 80’s. DOT under TGT shifted gears as to how designs were done, built segments based on political promises ( John Gard/141 and the Herb Kohler single purpose golf interchange on I43 are great examples) rather than traffic volume, and went from re-building existing corridors to all new routes. They built Cadillac highways then forgot about maintenance.

    Raise the gas tax, raise registration fees, and make the heavy weight users pay their fair share.

  4. DTY

    Without making any opinion-based comment, please note that the report you referred to appears to use highway-miles versus lane-miles as the basis of its comparison. This is illogical. A mile of a four-lane freeway would cost more to build and maintain than a mile of two-lane low-volume state highway. I’m guessing Wisconsin has more multi-lane routes than states like ND, MN or IA. If you were able to re-run all of the numbers based on lane-miles you might come up with different results.

  5. Jadedly Unbiased

    Great point. I wouldn’t have thought of that. This seems like an issue that both Democrats and Republicans would/could work together on. We should “stop pointing at the problem and start pointing at the solution”.

  6. west bend observer

    Jaded, Off topic but you may want to consider the big party at Kewauakum DQ tonight, free ice cream cake for ALL!

  7. Owen

    DTY, it’s a valid point, but the report does show the lane miles and total miles (page 11). Minnesota and Wisconsin are very close in the lanes per road mile ratio while Michigan actually has far more lanes per mile. If you rerun the numbers based on lane miles, the fact remains that Wisconsin is spending far more per mile than these other states.

  8. DTY

    Thanks Owen. I glanced through the report but didn’t have time to read it all the way and run any numbers.

  9. Jadedly Unbiased

    west bend observer,
    Thanks for the tip. I will be sure to wear the Caitlyn Jenner/1st black president get up.

  10. Steve Austin

    My issue is simple. They are not prioritizing this stuff correctly.

    All the main arteries in and out of Milwaukee should have four wide lanes going each direction like many cities do. Instead we live with thin lanes, 2 and 3 lane clogs, etc.

    In the meantime, last summer I drove some of those highways up north across the state from west to east. Beautiful new roads, massive shoulders to them and probably would see another car once every ten minutes or so. Tommy Thompson way overdid it up there and now we pay the price.

    I get the complaints of the northern legislators wanting less spending in Milwaukee. But the WOW counties fund a ton of the State tax revenue and represent the largest GOP voting block,

  11. Bill Sell

    As a Milwaukean I have reservations about the cost of widening the I-94 corridor between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges. Traffic counts do not justify this widening; WisDOT has used old formulas bulking up the Transportation budget. The graying of the Wisconsin population means more seniors, fewer drivers, and a need for alternatives. Milwaukee does not want the widening, does not need it, and Wisconsin cannot afford it.

    Spend the hundreds of millions on state-wide potholes where it is desperately needed.

    We have resolutions from City and County government opposed to the extra expense, the lack of alternatives and the slowing of pothole repair. Out-state advocates for local road repair have allies in Milwaukee. An amendment to the Transportation budget sending the I-94 expansion proposal back to the drawing board may put hundreds of millions of dollars back on the table.

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