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State needs to regain tradition of infrastructure excellence

As someone who spent a career in transportation engineering, I love taking road trips, seeing developments in transportation and how states are handling infrastructure needs and highway safety.

A recent trip from my new home in Arizona to my native state of Wisconsin left me wondering what has happened to the highway system we Badgers once proudly embraced as the best in the Midwest and one of its chief economic and lifestyle selling points.

There have been numerous reports and studies in the past few years documenting Wisconsin's slide in infrastructure rankings, including a most recent U.S. News and World Report "Best States" comparison that ranked Wisconsin's road quality at 44th among all states.

Frankly, I doubted that report, but reluctantly, I have come to see what they reported, once I entered the state from the southwest and traveled throughout Wisconsin over the next week. I saw highways crumbling from age and delayed repair.

How did that turnabout occur? Here are my thoughts:

Wisconsin once had leadership and vision: I served state government under Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose priority after being elected in 1986 was to send his secretaries of Transportation and Development across the state to find out what local officials and business leaders thought the state's transportation and economic development priorities should be.

The result was "Corridors 2020," a visionary blueprint to connect the communities throughout Wisconsin to each other, and then to national and international markets. We executed that game plan and Wisconsin became a national leader in transportation and economic development.

Wisconsin lost its financial commitment: The key to long-term planning and infrastructure investment is a sustainable revenue model that provides certainty. For 20 years, fuel tax indexing allowed the Transportation Fund to offset inflation and changes in fuel consumption. As a result, Wisconsin was able to implement "Corridors 2020;" create a local road improvement program; allocate state funding for road and bridge repair; begin reconstruction of the southeastern Wisconsin freeway system; and provide much-needed higher capacity regional highway connections to major freeways throughout Wisconsin.

Since indexing was repealed in 2006, there is now a billion-dollar shortfall in the Transportation Fund. As a result, Wisconsin has been veering from one looming transportation crisis to the next, often adding transportation debt rather than facing reality.

Wisconsin has not allowed transportation professionals to do their jobs; I worked with some of the best and brightest at the Department of Transportation (WisDOT) before retiring in 2003.

WisDOT was one of the most respected state agencies, with a reputation for comprehensive analysis, robust internal debate among its leadership and thoughtful decision making. Contrast that to what has happened in the last 15 years.

First, a governor was elected on the promise of eliminating 10,000 state employees. He and his administration took it out on WisDOT, which bore the brunt of those reductions. This was followed by another governor who appointed a blue-ribbon funding committee, on which I proudly served, to recommend transportation funding priorities and resources.

I am disappointed that none of the recommendations of that committee have been implemented.

It is time to do the right thing. Wisconsin can regain its once proud tradition of transportation system excellence, but it's going to take leadership and vision to assure long-term sustainable funding and provide transportation professionals the independence and resources to do their jobs.

Thomas Carlsen began his Wisconsin Department of Transportation career in 1964 as a student engineer-in-training and served as state design engineer, director of the Madison and Eau Claire districts, and agency secretary before retiring in 2003.

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