With elections in the rearview mirror, it's time to focus on other critical issues. One in particular matters greatly to Wisconsin's forest industry. For the timber industry to remain economically viable, a comprehensive solution to Wisconsin's transportation infrastructure is crucial.
Wisconsin is the nation's No. 1 producer of pulp and paper. In total, the forest industry generates $24.7 billion with an additional $5.9 billion in value added product for Wisconsin's economy. In terms of gross product output of new and recycled products, forest products are the largest industry in Wisconsin. Not only is forestry the top employer in ten counties, each job in forestry supports an additional 1.7 jobs in other sectors.
Most timber grows in rural, less-populated areas. Producing and hauling raw forest products takes a well maintained rural road system. Although efforts between local road maintenance officials and the timber industry have helped preserve pavement life with reduced axle loading and increased enforcement, many rural Wisconsin roads and bridges (including culverts) are well beyond their intended life cycle. This in turn is forcing local road officials to activate weight restrictions for posting local roads. The number of weight restricted roads is expanding annually making it increasingly difficult to haul product at full capacity. Smaller payloads escalate transportation costs because it causes more trips, limiting forest products industries ability to remain competitive in global and domestic markets. More importantly, increased transportation costs also increase consumer costs.
The Wisconsin County Forest Association and Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, with guidance from the Wisconsin Council on Forestry, recently completed a research project called "Wisconsin Wood Supply Assessment," available at wisconsinforestry.org. As reported in the study, detouring around weight restricted roads in one town required an average increase of 15.4 loaded miles per trip. In this one scenario alone: "Total cost to the wood supply chain because of the restrictions was $1.06 million per year, representing an increase of 23 percent over the baseline transportation costs." Perhaps if local road managers knew funding was going to increase, they wouldn't feel the need to place weight limits on roads at a pace that threatens our industry.
Association members were pleased to hear the governor say he would recommend to the legislature to add funding in his upcoming budget for repair or replacement of local roads. That's a great start, however, the amount of money provided to replace or repair roads and bridges for transporting raw material from harvest to market, barely scratches the surface of the amount needed. Delaying replacement or repair of these bridges (culverts) and roads is no longer an option for Wisconsin.
Funding for transportation is money well spent - it ensures major economic driver industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and forest products remain vibrant. There are a variety of options for lawmakers and the governor to consider for resolving the transportation crisis.
The Wisconsin legislature is currently conducting a transportation audit to look for efficiencies within DOT. This evaluation is an excellent step in the right direction, and if there are efficiencies to be found within the existing DOT budget, that's great because we'll need every penny we can find. However, it is highly unlikely efficiencies alone can solve these transportation deficiencies.
The forest industry is like many other industries that typically advocate for lower taxes and fees. However there comes a realization that without roads and bridges to support rural-based industries, Wisconsin and the businesses within, will suffer great economic consequences in the not too distant future. As quoted from a broad coalition of stakeholders:
"We are in this together from Superior to Kenosha. Our transportation system is just that - a system. We need the first and last mile maintained properly, along with bus systems, freight infrastructure as well as our major highway corridors. It cannot be an either-or situation.
"It's time to 'Just fix it!'"
Henry Schienebeck is executive director for the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association headquartered in Rhinelander Wis. He can be reached at 715-282-5828.