Legislation to rebuild aging agricultural roads in Wisconsin gets public hearing
By Henry Redman
Aging rural roads with posted weight limits are causing Wisconsin’s agricultural industry to make often expensive and inefficient adjustments to avoid hauling milk, feed and equipment over crumbling pavement and dangerously unsafe bridges.
Farmers and haulers are forced to take long detours or only fill trucks halfway, causing the added expense of multiple trips and the added danger of a tanker truck only half full of milk — which increases the risk of rollovers because the liquid has more room to slosh around in an unfilled tank.
The problem has gotten so large that legislation to develop a grant program targeted at these rural routes was designated as the state farm lobby’s No. 1 legislative priority this session. On Tuesday, those bills got hearings in the Assembly and Senate where agricultural, business and municipal government interests expressed their desire for the legislation to be passed.
The bills, introduced with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, expose the fact that the state’s aging rural infrastructure, often first constructed in the 1950s and 60s, has not kept up with an agricultural industry that has forced farmers to grow their operations or go out of business. As those operations have grown, equipment has gotten larger, requiring more robust roads and bridges and straining the existing stock.
“The trucks are not too heavy for the roads, the roads are not built well enough for the trucks,” Dan Johnson, vice president of the Wisconsin Milk Haulers Association, said. “This critical funding legislation is needed if Wisconsin is to remain as America’s Dairyland and keep milk moving from farm to processor to consumers throughout the year.”
Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), one of the bill’s authors, said at the Senate hearing that the type of farm he has to run in order to stay afloat is very different from the one his grandfather ran, which makes the crumbling bridge near his property frustrating.
“I have a number of pet peeves, and one of them is that I often hear, ‘Well, the equipment is getting too big,’” Tranel said. “Well, I am sorry that the demands of modern agriculture require us to operate efficiently as farmers. My grandfather raised 11 kids milking 30 cows. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. And so it’s not the farmers that have chosen to increase the size of the equipment. Frankly, it’s every single person who is not involved in agriculture but still consumes three meals a day. They are the benefactors of the efficiency of modern agriculture. And I don’t think it’s too much for us — because as a state when we have a $105 billion dollar agricultural industry — to invest some dollars into this infrastructure.”
Under the bills, municipalities will be eligible for grants that cover up to 100% of a project’s cost if it improves a local road, minor collector, bridge or culvert under the control of the local government; provides access to agricultural lands and is used by more than one producer; the infrastructure is subject to weight limits at least annually and the reconstruction will remove that weight limit. An amendment adds roads used for hauling forestry products to the list of eligible projects.
Among the legislation’s goals is to target projects that are too small to apply for the state’s other road construction grant programs or involve local governments without the budget to undertake massive road improvement projects. There are also provisions aimed at keeping the application process simple because complex applications can often exclude small town governments without the staff to undertake intensive grant writing work.
Along with the legislation, $150 million of one-time money is expected to be appropriated as part of the state budget process to fund the grant program. Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), one of the chairs of the budget writing Joint Finance Committee, is a co-author.
Still, it is unknown how much of an impact the new program will have. Tranel said at the hearing that Wisconsin has 62,000 miles of town roads and these types of projects can cost up to $40,000 per mile. Without a full accounting of how many miles of agricultural roads are under posted weight limits, an understanding of where, in that large network, repairing just one bridge could open up large swaths of road or how well-used the grant program will be, lawmakers and interest groups are unsure how much of an effect the changes would have — though they say it’s a good start.
Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska), the state’s former agriculture secretary and one of the co-authors of the legislation, said the local governments in his partially rural western Wisconsin district are supportive of the program but they’re worried about the size.
“I hear from my constituents in Crawford County, Vernon and Monroe County … they love the idea, they absolutely want it,” he said. “They’re afraid there’s not enough money here for it, there won’t be enough miles, but again we’ve got to start somewhere.”