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In early November 2015, potholes prompted some crossing of party lines when the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to borrow $350 million over the next two years for road projects. Democrats offered key support.
Even before that, Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) was arguing more spending was needed. On Oct. 1, 2015 she tweeted this:
"71% of WI’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 14% of WI’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. #JustFixIt"
In Wisconsin’s budget battles over infrastructure, few deny the need for road maintenance.
But is Shilling right about how bad the situation is?
Digging into the numbers
Shilling’s team directed us to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation that cited the same statistics as the tweet -- that 71 percent of roads in Wisconsin are in poor or mediocre condition and 14 percent of bridges are classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
So, the report is quoted accurately. But what about the numbers themselves? The two statistics were drawn from different sources of data.
The data on road conditions came from the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report, the most recent available, is put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, a trade and advocacy organization.
By the group’s tally, Wisconsin is one of just six states with at least 70 percent of roads rated in poor or mediocre condition, meaning our roads are in worse shape than the national average.
But experts caution that the report card can overstate the amount of need for road repairs.
First, the report uses a small source of data for each state and then extrapolates that data to the entire state roadway system.
Ashwat Anandanarayanan, director of transportation policy for the environmental group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, said the civil engineers’ reports also conflate new roadway construction and maintenance, resulting in what appears to be greater need.
"Lots of roads need to be fixed," he said. "Not a lot need to be expanded."
So then, what is a better measuring stick?
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation collects its own data on road conditions that is used in the Highway Performance Monitoring System by the Federal Highway Administration, which is considered the gold standard of transportation information.
According to these figures, the percentage of Wisconsin roads in poor or mediocre condition is much lower -- 38 percent of the state highway system falls into those categories.
That doesn’t mean the state will fare better in a national comparison by that measure. In fact, the state lags behind the U.S. average in most indicators of roadway quality.
As for bridges, Shilling said 14 percent of Wisconsin’s bridges were in disrepair or functionally obsolete.
This statistic, which is accurate, came from WisDOT data submitted to the Federal Highway Administration.
But while Shilling cites the number as evidence of the state being behind, Wisconsin does pretty well here in a national comparison. Only three states — Arizona, Minnesota and Nevada — reported a smaller percentage of bridges in disrepair.
Shilling said "71 % of WI’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 14% of WI’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."
The report she cited from the federal Department of Transportation backed up her figures, but the numbers used for her road statistic aren’t the most accurate available. By another measure, the percentage of roads in poor or mediocre condition is far smaller.
There was no dispute on the bridge number, though on that front the state actually fares better than most others.
We rate the claim Mostly True.
U.S. Department of Transportation, Road and bridge data by state, July 9, 2015.
Phone interview with Ashwat Anandanarayanan, director of transportation policy, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
Email exchange with Joe Peterangelo, senior researcher, Public Policy Forum.
Email exchange with Tony Palese, Office of Senator Jennifer Shilling.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, DOT puts brakes on 5 major road projects in budget crunch, Sept. 29, 2015.
Email exchange with Olivia Wolfertz, media relations, American Society of Civil Engineers.
American Society of Civil Engineers, Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, 2013.
Email exchange with Patty Mayers, director, Office of Public Affairs, Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Email exchange with Baruch Feigenbaum, transportation policy analyst, Reason Foundation.
Email exchange with James Corvetti, associate professor of civil engineering, Marquette University.
Reason Foundation, 21st annual highway report’s state-by-state results, Sept. 18, 2014.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lawmakers OK additional highway borrowing, Nov. 4, 2015.
Journal of Transportation Engineering, Applicability of the international roughness index as a predictor of asphalt pavement condition, December 2007.
StreetsBlog USA, Is ASCE failing to tell America to spend wisely on infrastructure?, March 20, 2013.
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