Fact Check: Gov. Evers’ claim that locals alone pay for local roads and bridges is just plain wrong
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers recently said “local governments shouldn’t have to carry the burden alone to fix roads and bridges.” His comment completely ignores the fact that the state already offers generous aid to local road and bridge improvement efforts.
In fact, the Local Roads Improvement Program (LRIP) and the Local Bridge Improvement Assistance Program are just two programs explicitly intended to provide very specific assistance to local governments for road and bridge maintenance. Through these and other state and federal funding sources, local governments are given billions of dollars to help pay for local projects.
The Claim: In a tweet earlier in April, Evers implied that without his plan to increase local transportation aid, counties, cities, villages, and towns would “carry the burden alone to fix roads and bridges.”
In his tweet, Evers implies that local governments are forced to fend for themselves when it comes to repairing roads and bridges, ignoring the investment by Wisconsin taxpayers to help fund local projects.
The Numbers: Local governments are generally responsible for their own local road repair needs—and they have various options like property taxes and borrowing to achieve those goals, the same options that are available for funding other priorities like local schools. But contrary to Evers’ claim, the state assists local governments with billions of dollars in state aid each year.
In fact, state aid intended just for roads made up half or more of all road construction spending for most types of local government. According to the Department of Revenue, in 2017:
Counties spent $205.4 million on road construction while receiving $121.5 million in state road aids
Cities spent $300.6 million on road construction while receiving $159.3 million in state road aids
Villages spent $98.7 million on road construction while receiving $46.9 million in state road aids
Towns spent $110.4 million on road construction while receiving $154.4 million in state road aids
Some argue current levels of state transportation aid is not enough. But according to the same data, many local governments spent only state money on local transportation projects and no local money at all, despite ongoing gripes that there are widespread unmet needs.
132 out of 441 villages and 480 out of 1252 towns actually spent less on road work than they took in from the state in road aid—which means zero local investment in roads. That means local officials are either failing to prioritize critical local transportation projects when the time comes to set their own budgets, or they are being dishonest about the needs that exist.
Everything those villages and towns spent on road work is funded by current state aid, putting to rest Evers’ claim that they would “have to carry the burden alone” if Madison doesn’t open the taxpayers’ wallet.
But transportation-specific state aid for local government is just the start. In 2017, state government contributed billions in general aid to local government at all levels for various purposes including highways, according to DOR:
Counties received $1.4 billion in total state aids
Cities received $887 million in total state aids
Villages received $146 million in total state aids
Towns received $242 million in total state aids
Out of that, $859 million was in shared revenue payments to local government. That’s money from the state that county, municipal, and town governments can spend how they choose. If the condition of local roads and bridges was truly dire, they could choose to use that state aid to fund those projects, as well.
In addition, local governments received $253.5 million in federal aid in 2017.
The Bottom Line: Evers’ tweet reinforced the narrative we’ve seen from local officials and proponents of more road spending from Madison ever since the most recent transportation funding debate heated up: that state government is to blame for potholes in city streets or for rusty bridges because the state doesn’t help in funding local infrastructure needs.
While it is the responsibility of counties, cities, villages, and towns to fill their own potholes and maintain their own bridges, state government already helps out in a big way.
Evers is wrong to push the narrative that local government would “have to carry the burden alone” if not for even more state aid.