WISCONSIN (WKOW) — Beloit has potholes — lots of them. In fact, the city says it used its “Patchmobile,” to fill 37,500 of them last year.
And Beloit isn’t alone.
Filling potholes is something most communities can manage. But what drivers want, and local governments know they must do, is fix the real problem: thousands of streets are crumbling and need to be totally replaced.
To tackle the task, many places are turning to an increasingly popular means to bring in some money for street repair. The wheel tax is a fee established in state law that county and municipal governments can apply to vehicles during license plate renewal. Any money raised from the tax must be used for transportation purposes.
(Full Pothole Patrol coverage is HERE.)
Almost any tax increase will rankle those who have to pay, but with increasing costs, stagnating state aid and more roads to service many communities are turning to the tax as a way to get by.
Twenty-five cities, towns and villages, and 10 counties have already instituted a wheel tax. Eight of those have begun or will begin collecting the fee this year.
Today, Waterloo, a small town of a few thousand, will start enforcing its own. Every vehicle under 8,000 pounds registered to an address in the city limits will be subject to a $15 charge. Each payment will fund a 36 square-foot segment of new road.
City Clerk/Treasurer Mo Hansen said the city chose $15, though it could have set the fee at any level, because it equated to such an easy-to-understand impact on the roadways.
Anyone living in Waterloo — and more importantly, paying the tax — could look at a new stretch of fresh asphalt and think, “that section there, I helped make it possible.”
However, a less generous imagination may decide, “I gave more of my hard-earned money to the government, and that is all it got me?”
The balancing act between taxation and roads goes back much further than the few decades of Wisconsin’s wheel tax, but the challenge seems particularly precarious today.
Most municipalities seem to agree that the average lifespan of a road, constructed properly and well maintained, is 25 years. But, many go much longer without replacement. Platteville said it has streets that have gone over 50 years without needed overhauls.
Rebuilding any stretch of street bears a steep cost. Exactly how steep varies, but for most small communities it is likely the most expensive capital project they will take on that year.
The simple math of money coming in versus money going out underscores the impossible task facing many communities.
In Waterloo, the city is responsible for maintaining 17 miles of roadway. Their wheel tax will raise approximately $40,000 this year. That will equate to about an eighth of a mile of new road, or just over one city block.
Hansen said even with the other money the city brings in for construction, wheel tax dollars leave the community lagging behind its aging streets.
In Iowa County, the problem is even worse. The county is responsible for maintaining almost 365 miles of roads, and Project Manager Randy Randy Sudmeier says they can afford to reconstruct less than a mile.
“We can get more life out of our roads if they were built correctly and the base is strong. I would say a majority of our roads don’t have that. At some point, they just put asphalt or whatever solid surface over the dirt or gravel road that was there before.”
When asked why they are unable to keep up with decaying streets, local governments blame a variety of factors, mostly a lack of funding: hence a wheel tax.
Many communities pointed to stagnating state transportation dollars. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation sends municipalities quarterly payments called general transportation aid (GTA). Counties also receive GTA, but for reasons that even a DOT spokesperson could not explain those payments go out three times a year.
GTA funds are distributed using a formula that takes into account how much each community has spent on roads in the past. So, if a town wants to get more money from the state, in theory, it has to start spending more on its roads.
But how is a community with no more money to spend supposed to start spending more money? Wheel tax.
Well, wheel tax or loans, but most municipalities and counties are loath to borrow the millions of dollars necessary to do significant road reconstruction because the debt service payments will eat into their budgets.
The state legislature has capped the amount a community can raise through property tax, and many communities tax at a level very close to that limit. This partly answers the question “why do governments add another tax rather than just slightly increasing the ones they already collect?”
Several local finance directors told 27 News that they like the wheel fees because it allows them to tax only the people who use the roads for the maintenance. If you don’t own a car, you don’t pay the tax.
However, if you drive a vehicle that weighs over 8,000 pounds, you also don’t pay the tax. State statutes exempt vehicles over that weight.
Sparsely-populated communities also reported less satisfaction with the tax. These places, like Waterloo and Iowa County, have a lower ratio of cars to lane-miles of road, and thus less money to maintain their streets.
Cities like Janesville and Beloit, by contrast, said they were happy with what the fees allow them to do, and both expect to be able to replace streets as they degrade. Dane County, which began collecting a wheel tax in late 2018 and expects to bring in almost $12 million this year, has budgeted approximately $10 million more in road reconstruction for 2019 than the year before.
For its part, the state seems to recognize the problem and is taking steps to address it.
The governor’s proposed budget would increase transportation aid by $66 million, which Transportation Secretary-Designee Craig Thompson is quick to point out would be the largest sum of GTA the state has ever had to give out. But he also says that even the historically large aid budget will not be enough to adequately fund local road maintenance.
“To solve all their problems no, but it would put them at a historically high level and if we can get the ongoing revenue that we’re proposing in this budget it can get them on a path that would get locals on a good path,” said Thompson.
When asked about the increased number of governments turning to the tax, Thompson said he was concerned. “It’s a Band-Aid approach. I give it to locals for trying to step up and meet their needs, but we need some answers at the state level and we’ve just fallen down on that in the last decade.”
During the last 10 years, several localities reported stagnated and even decreased GTA payments in the face of sharp increases in costs. Asphalt was singled out as a material that has become more expensive as the price of oil has risen.
Smaller towns even report half the number of contractors bidding on road projects, which one community attributed to only a few firms being equipped to handle major reconstructions, and more places need the qualified workers. Less competition breeds higher prices.
Some have found questionable solutions to deteriorating roads. The town of Arena, whose wheel tax is $20, no longer uses asphalt. Instead, the town paves its streets with a mixture of tar and rock.
Arena replaces a lot of road. Town Chairman David Lucey estimates his community redoes five or six miles of the town’s 79 miles of streets every year. At that rate, all of the town’s roadways can be replaced in just over 13 years. However, Lucey acknowledged that not using asphalt meant that the road would breakdown more quickly and require more frequent pavements, passing the cost from construction to repair.
Over the course of many interviews, 27 News heard a myriad of solutions such as increasing state aid, municipalities prioritizing roads over other services, fighting costs with regulation and teaching people to understand that their government cannot fix every street.
If none of the aforementioned are done, Beloit should consider patenting the Patchmobile’s design, because a lot of places are going to need it.