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Superior Days delegation works toward transportation fix

Transportation has long been a battle in the state Capitol as the Legislature wrestled with rising costs and declining revenue to support the state's transportation system.

In fact, Gov. Tony Evers made transportation one of his top priorities for Wisconsin during his bid for office last year. And when he took office, he quickly appointed Craig Thompson, former director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, to lead the effort.

"From working with you for a lot of years, I've got some idea what's on your minds," Thompson told members of the Superior Days delegation Tuesday, Feb. 12.

The delegation was back in Madison for the fifth year, pitching the idea of the state granting authority for county government to ask voters if they would support paying an extra half-percent sales tax to maintain local roads. The tax would sunset after five years unless voters supported a new referendum. The goal this year is a pilot project for Bayfield and Douglas counties.

"Your region has really been the leader of the local option sales tax to fund transportation," Thompson said. "And I think that's a conversation that should continue. I think no matter what we do, we through the state budget still have to a role to play for sustaining transportation as a whole. When it comes to transit and local roads, the local-option sales tax still makes a lot of sense for local communities to have."

Thompson said the delegation has the right message and just needs to keep pushing for it; after all, the only other option available to counties, besides borrowing, is implementation of a wheel tax.

"The county board has no desire to go with a wheel tax," Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said. "We may be forced to but we have no desire to do it. I think this is our last chance to address this. Otherwise we're just going to have to rely on you guys, and I'm not so sure you guys have the money in your budget that's going to take care of our system."

Statewide, the highway system is not in the condition it needs to be to support Wisconsin's agriculture, tourism and manufacturing economies, Thompson said. Wisconsin has the second most transportation-dependent economy in the nation, but the system has been on the decline since at least 2012, he said. The state highway system, based on the national roughness index, ranks Wisconsin state highways as the worst in the Midwest by a considerable margin, Thompson said. Based on that metric, he said only 32 percent of Wisconsin highways are in good condition, compared to 52 percent in Iowa and 75 percent in Minnesota.

"We didn't get into this situation in two years, and we're not going to get out of it in two years, but I am hopeful," Thompson said.

During his first five weeks at the head of Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Thompson said his top priority has been working with stakeholders to develop the budget for the transportation component of the budget, which the governor will deliver around Feb. 28.

"I believe we can introduce a budget that will begin to change that downward trend in conditions on the state highway system, that will provide more local aids to help you," Thompson said.

"I think we're going to look at an increase for transit assistance," Thompson said, adding it's a workforce and aging-in-place issue.

Mayor Jim Paine said there are manufacturers in Superior struggling with the issue because employees without access to a car can't get to work. Paine suggested a grant program could assist manufacturers willing to work on their own solutions. After all, there were no solutions to the problem when the city addressed it with former Gov. Scott Walker's administration.

"Most of our time talking about transportation with the Walker administration was focused on workforce development, which is a problem right now in Superior," Paine said. "We have the workforce ... we can't actually connect them to the manufacturers. It's great to bring the actual jobs to Superior, but if no one can get to them, then there's no economic expansion at all."