Report: Milwaukee's Transportation Infrastructure Faces Real Challenges

Sep 13, 2016

Anyone who's driven in the Milwaukee area recently knows that there are some roads that are in rough shape.  But do the pot holes and frost heaves and other bumps paint an accurate picture of the overall condition of the city's transportation infrastructure?

As you might expect, the truth is a little more nuanced.  The Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum is taking a multi-pronged look at a variety of infrastructure issues in the region and at the financial picture surrounding them.  The first of those reports is called A Fork In the Road: The Outlook for Transportation Infrastructure in the City and County of Milwaukee, and deals expressly with transportation infrastructure.

"On the local level, this is an issue that tends to fall somewhat below the radar screen, but it really shouldn't," says report author Rob Henken. "I think the premise for us in terms of doing a series of reports on infrastructure needs is that local infrastructure challenges could be for the next decade what pension and health care was for the previous decade in terms of local government finance."

According to the report, 56% (792 miles) of city streets are rated in either poor or fair condition, creating a significant challenge, according to Henken. "For the most part, city leaders are staying on top of that need, but part of the question is how much money is available to continue to stay on top?"

Henken notes that both Milwaukee and the County have adopted policy goals that limit amounts of annual borrowing, yet both issue bonds to address most of their major capital repair and replacement needs.

One key need that needs to be addressed in transportation infrastructure is Milwaukee County's bus fleet. The County needs to maintain a regular replacement cycle for its buses, but 30% of them have already reached 500,000 revenue miles.

"There's a federal threshold of 500,000 revenue miles, and when a bus hits that threshold it's eligible for potential federal funding to aid in the replacement of that bus," Henken explains. "That doesn't mean if a bus has 500,001 miles that it's not safe to get on that bus...but when you look at the county's fleet of 436 buses, 130 of those have exceeded the 500,000 mile threshold."

Following this transportation infrastructure report, the Public Policy Forum will examine Milwaukee's water system; including the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, waste water treatment needs and the City's water works.