DOT Audit May Impact Cycling

You may have been hearing about an audit of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and wondering how this might impact the roads you ride on. The quick answer is that it has no direct impact, but it might have a profound indirect one. For an explanation read on.

Last year the legislature ordered the Legislative Audit Bureau, a well-respected nonpartisan agency, to take a look at the DOT’s state highway program. The word “audit” is a little misleading here. The LAB does, in fact, look at the books, but its audits are really more about how a program and a state agency are carrying out tasks given to them by the legislature.

In this case the LAB was only asked to look at one program within the DOT, albeit its biggest one: state highways. So, it looked at numbered highways as opposed to highways with letters or names. Your local Highway C is managed by your county and your Schroeder Road is probably managed by your town or city or village. The state highway system is just under 12,000 miles while local roads make up just over 100,000 miles. And, since most state highways are busier than local roads, chances are that you do most of your cycling on local roads rather than state highways. Still, there are substantial miles of state highways that are suitable for biking.

The audit also did not look at the DOT’s work in the area of cycling, pedestrians, transit or other programs. But the LAB made findings that will surely influence the state budget debate this spring and that, in turn, will impact cycling.

Here are the highlights of the report:

* The DOT has been way underestimating the cost of highway projects. In fact, over a decade the department’s estimates were off by about 100%. Nineteen projects reviewed actually cost a total of $1.5 billion when they had been estimated to cost $772 million.

* Despite all that investment, our state highways are deteriorating. The percentage of highways in good condition decreased from 53% in 2010 to just 41% in 2015.

* We’re stacking up poorly with our neighbors. About 75% of highways in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan were in good condition, 66% in Illinois and 64% in Minnesota. The U.S. average was 63%. Iowa came in at 55%, but still well above Wisconsin.

* Local road conditions, while not the focus of the report, came out pretty well, with 90% of them reported to be in good or better shape. You can check out the conditions in your county by looking up Appendix 6 in the report.

* The LAB recommended improvements in DOT’s processes that might save about $40 million a year.

So, how does all this impact your favorite cycling route? Well, the DOT was already looking at a funding gap of several hundred million dollars in its next budget. But now there’s reason to believe that even those numbers are based on wildly low cost estimates, so that the real deficit could be almost twice as much. And the $40 million in potential annual savings won’t go very far if the deficit is really between $1 billion and $2 billion.

All of which puts even more pressure on the legislature to come up with a way to pay for all this. The net result of the audit probably makes the transportation budget an even a bigger issue this year than it already had been. And, of course, with so much at stake for cycling, especially when it comes to local road conditions, we’ll have to keep a close eye on how this plays out.





About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

4 thoughts on “DOT Audit May Impact Cycling

  1. Your fourth bullet should read “90.0 percent infair or better shape”, not “good or better shape”.

    I did a double-take when I read that because I know that state aids for local and county roads have been declining for at least 10 years, if not more.

    I think most municipalities in Wisconsin use the created by UW-Madison. So 90% of roads rated Fair or better is still not as bad as I would expect..I would have thought there would over 10% of roads rated “poor” or “failed”.

  2. Ah! Close readers of the Bike Fed blog! You’re right. My mistake, Sonia, thanks for catching it. And I will say that I found that percentage (even at fair or better) higher than I would have guessed. The report does say that communities do not use one standard system to evaluate roads, so the data might be less reliable than the state’s.

  3. Where are the 59% of highways that are not in good condition? When I drive in Wisconsin on the numbered highways, I am amazed at how few pot holes there are and what GOOD shape the roads are in, especially compared to local roads.

    • So, this is supposed to be a consistent, uniform rating system used by all states. My experience with a similar system used by Madison called PASER was that it was pretty subjective. Basically, engineers go look at roads and they look for various signs of distress. But my guess is that it is still up to the judgement of individual engineers and that, of course, can vary with the engineer and with the training that they get from state to state. It’s possible, I suppose, that the folks doing the ratings in Wisconsin are more exacting than those in other states, but that’s just speculation.

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