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February 22, 2020

2/4/2020 2:22:00 PM
'Listening Session on Roads' meeting attracted numerous opinions, viewpoints on situation Monday night at Pecatonica
Gary McKenzie
Sports Writer

Four words are what came to mind of many quad county area attendees Monday night in Blanchardville in the Pecatonica 6-12 library while departing a 90 minute public Q+A discussion on the local area's deteriorating and what many present described as dangerous and unsafe and scary roadways. Though not profane - they are four words not commonly used in the English language and which are infrequently uttered in public - "Raise My Gas Taxes."
Asked at one point by Iowa Co. Board District 3 Supervisor, Mark Storti, to please stand - 'if' willing to have the Wisconsin gas tax raised, nearly without exception, (the room was filled with approximately 75 attendees) the contingent rose to their feet in unison. That groundswell of opinion and support for raising Wisconsin's gas tax (it has not been raised in more than 14 years) came after many in the audience made passionate appeals and statements to a panel present about why the current system of road funding in the local rural area is literally broken and is perceived as being ignored by Wisconsin's legislators, in a continuing pattern of underfunding road repairs, locally, under the current legislative leadership in Madison.
Worse yet - a collection including Green and Iowa Co. highway commissioners, township supervisors, at least two local village presidents, numerous government, county and local area elected supervisors and school reps from Argyle and Pec were consistent in emphasizing only a total revamping of legislative funding is going to solve the issue. Green Co. Hwy. Commissioner Chris Narveson lamented it's the State of Wisconsin, that in refusing to raise the gas tax, is forcing all safety concerns literally onto the backs of county and local municipality officials. Narveson said currently - there's not the needed political will in Madison to properly address road needs of rural counties in southwest Wisconsin.
"Our hands are tied - but they (the Wisconsin Legislature) could change that tomorrow," said Narveson. "Why won't they put in place a tax where the ones that use the roads pay for the roads?" Likewise, Iowa County Hwy. Commissioner Craig Hardy talked about the terrible base conditions of Hwy F and the immense amount of investment it will take to rebuild it the correct way. Iowa Co. Board chairman John Meyers lamented they've (the Io. Co. Hwy. Dept) has already cut 18 percent of department staff, due, in part to underfunding actions from the State Legislature.
Meyers said the state's levy caps are detrimental to spending on infrastructure and the situation is getting worse year after year. He noted that the worse stretch of CTH F needing reconstructive work would cost at least $4.3 to $4.5 million to replace, yet the county only has $11 million levied per year for such purposes across the county's entirety.
"We're in a financial hole and we're not maintaining our infrastructure. Not so long ago we could outfit a new truck for $160,000 and now to do the same costs $240,000.
Pec school administrator Dr. Jill Underly asked the representatives present to fully understand good roads are a lifeblood of small towns and literally mean survival - to place es like Pecatonica and Argyle.
Several speakers noted that unfortunately, rural areas lose population, lose political standing and lose funding as funding formulas sometimes reduce appropriations due to population reduction trends, benefitting urban areas but at the expense of rural Wisconsinites.
A farmer and past school board member from Argyle, Maryellyne Rear, said she literally fears for the very future of towns like Argyle and Blanchardville, and neighboring farms and farm families when roads are so poor that people don't want to live nor invest, locally, when revitalization of infrastructure is ignored decade after decade.
Wisconsin legislators including State Senator Jon Erpenbach and Representative/Assemblywoman Sondy Pope, village presidents from Argyle and Blanchardville, numerous county board officials from Iowa, Lafayette and Green counties were all on hand Monday night at the 'Listening Session On Roads' - a discussion group initiated via an earlier meeting in late October of 2019. but this time on a larger scale.
Erpenbach noted Wisconsin has not raised the gas tax in 14 years, adding he wholeheartedly supports one. He lamented the Legislature's decision, years ago, under Governor Jim Doyle to additionally dump the previous gas tax indexing method previously in place. Erpenbach acknowledged legislators have raised registration fees but said Wisconsin clearly does not do enough to fund badly needed road repairs - plus, he noted 'fees' generates nothing from out-of-state motorists using Wisconsin roads.
Assembly rep Sondy Pope summarized, at the conclusion of the session, what she'd return to Madison with is the notion that southwest Wisconsin residents, county and township officials are so fed up with their roads in disrepair - that it's time the Republican led Assembly and Senate raise gas taxes in Wisconsin.
Pope twice cautioned meeting goers about what to anticipate in the short term future.
When asked about Wisconsin constructing/enacting toll roads (such as in Illinois) Pope said - 'be careful what you wish for' - stating that costs of construction of the mega exits and booths and lanes needed for toll roads come at an incredible cost, require an act of Congress to implement, and no positive financial return would likely occur for the first half dozen years. Furthermore, she warned that once in place - toll booth systems in America, like those in other states are operated by private entities who can set the toll rates, can raise rates - "and we, as a State, would not be able to do anything about it."
Pope also warned the audience to remember many of her opposition party members in the state legislature) - "took a pledge that they'd never raise any taxes of any kind for any reason."
Though the meeting was civil in tone, Wisconsin Department of Transportation Asst. Deputy Secretary Joe Nilsestuen was at times asked tough, pointed questions about why and how the DOT has let down local area residents who use County F, albeit reluctantly and who simply avoid, and refuse to use winding stretches of STH 78.
Nilsestuen explained the many various categories of funding regarding the most recent round of legislative funding and the intent of Governor Tony Evers. He also provided solemn news describing just how poor many roads are in, statewide, and how much interest has been shown, in recent weeks and months, from all corners of the state, when county and regional entities are all applying for state road funding grants and appropriations. He said a committee of 27 are sorting through and rating projects that have been considered for consideration but warned a recent round of applications topped 1600 in total, asking for over $1 billion.
He said Berg's scheduling of the meeting now, in late January, was 'timely' and he thanked the audience and facilitators for the chance to explain the DOT's perspectives.
"We didn't get here overnight and we're not going to get things turned around overnight," said Nilsestuen.
Now retired Blanchardville businessman and current Pec school board member Roy Ruegsegger advised Pope and Erpenbach to not only raise taxes as soon as possible but to do so by increasing the tax from 10 to 20 cents per gallon so that something truly significant can be done to improve terrible CTH F and similar terrible roadway conditions in southwest Wisconsin.
Speaking both at the session and following the meeting, Green County Highway Commissioner Narveson said the solution is very simple - "Raise the gas tax and let the people who use the roads pay for the roads."
Avoca's Storti, Iowa County's District 3 supervisor also said roads in northern Iowa Co. need help, describing 'washboard' conditions of State Highway 14 in his area.
"Our Legislature puts regressive taxes in place here - while in Illinois and Iowa - they've raised their gas taxes," said Storti,
Kent Brauer, a Town Board Supervisor from Green County's Exeter Township said he has closely examined bids (on a state website) for all of January, 2020 to date and for December, 2019, alleging that while tens upon tens of millions goes elsewhere via reported DOT bids, he maintained almost no December nor January bid-letting took place, in fair proportion, in the local, six county area.
The practice of Republicans having enacted and implemented fees (instead of raising gas taxes) drew the ire and ridicule of several speakers - with Erpenbach echoing that said 'fees' loaded onto Wisconsinites, are in reality, taxes.
Another Blanchardville area attendee, Steve Acheson noted that he had felt safer while driving on missions years back, for the U.S. military, in and around Baghdad Iraq, than what he now feels driving carloads of children (he is a youth basketball coach) on CTH F. He also quipped about the irony present that at one time he had studied Civil Engineering at UW-Platteville. Acheson said it is embarrassing that although UW-P is a landing spot for international engineering students from all around the globe, the irony is that locally, not far from the engineering university in Wisconsin's southwest corner, the State of Wisconsin allows such pitiful roads as F to be perpetuated decade after without needed repairs.
Hollandale village president Meta Chrostowski lamented the Legislature's heavy-handed and misguided registration fee increase approach which hits young people and elderly especially hard instead of an across the board, fair approach such as by raising gas taxes.
Julie Dochnal and Grant Dochnal - parents of Pec school youngsters and representing EMTs and firefighters, reiterated that CTH F is so incredibly unsafe - yet so busy, and without painted lines, without proper shoulders besides being in incredibly poor condition year after year.
Charles Schriber, Chairman of the Town of Moscow, mentioned additional historic, questionable re-routing choices by the state DOT - forcing detours onto F years ago when repairing Hwy. 78; causing additional damage to an already bad stretch of road.
In opening the session Monday, and after closing , Mike Berg reiterated - along with Pope and Erpenbach - the only way the voices of locals may be heard is to constantly contact and re-contact those in positions of power and leadership in Madison, until enough legislators agree to a gas tax increase.
Berg says the goal is to find a way to have a better, safer, straighter, more direct route to the heavily traveled Highway 18-151 four lane corridor - than the winding Hwy. 78 and CTH F roadways currently in place.

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