Graham Kilmer

Just How Bad Are Milwaukee’s Roads?

They are among the worst in the state, which is also doing poorly, new report finds.

By - Apr 7th, 2024 01:30 pm

Damaged road on N. Bremen Street. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

It’s no secret that all across Wisconsin, the roads are getting worse.

Years of data confirm this. But many residents don’t need to be told their local roads are in poor shape. The problem is so pervasive that Gov. Tony Evers famously made “Fix the damn roads” a part of his campaign stump when he first ran for office in 2018.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum, a non-partisan good government organization, has come out with the latest report documenting the decline of the state’s roads. It found the roads in Wisconsin and in Milwaukee have gotten much worse since 2010.

The policy forum looked at statewide road-rating data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). This data is not perfect, and there are some gaps in it, the forum said, adding that it is still the longest-running, most reliable set of road quality data in the state.

Roads are rated on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being an excellent road and one being a road in dire shape needing immediate reconstruction. Milwaukee’s average road rating is 5.68, making it the eighth-worst municipality in the state for road quality.

As anyone who has ever popped a tire on a pothole knows, poor roads can create additional transportation expenses for local residents and even make their commutes less safe. In Milwaukee, more than one-third of roads have been rated by the state as poor or worse, which means a four or lower on the rating scale.

Road Spending

The reason roads are getting worse can be boiled down, simply, to a lack of funding for their repair and maintenance.

However, when it comes to local governments, spending on roads still takes up a significant chunk of their annual budgets. Milwaukee County Parks officials, for example, have repeatedly pointed out that an inordinate amount of its annual infrastructure budget goes to maintaining roads, as opposed to spending on parts of the parks system that people actually recreate in: the parks.

For local governments, the cost of road construction has been rising faster than the annual growth in construction costs. In other words, increased spending on road construction is not being driven simply by rising construction costs.

While road construction spending has risen, local road maintenance spending has gone down. “That gap between the rise in costs and local maintenance spending may help to explain the drop in local road quality,” the policy forum reported.

Like the famous description of bankruptcy, roads deteriorate gradually, then suddenly. “Roads tend to deteriorate slowly for the first part of their lifespan, then quickly near the end,” according to the policy forum. And as roads deteriorate the cost to repair them “skyrockets,” according to the report.

Local governments typically borrow money to pay for road construction and major maintenance. State and federal funding also play an important role and, as the forum notes, “Lackluster growth in transportation revenues – particularly the gas tax – may have kept the state from making the investments needed to help local governments keep up with local road needs while still adequately funding the state’s highway system,” the policy forum reported.

Some help, however, is on the way. Act 12, passed in 2023, gave the city and the county the authority to levy a new sales tax, helping both governments avert an imminent fiscal crisis. It also increased state aid for local governments across the state. Additionally, the latest state biennial budget included $250 million for local roads.

“The quality of Wisconsin’s paved local roads has deteriorated since 2010 – a trend worth watching closely,” the forum report stated. “It will take time and substantial investments to reverse this decline in quality across tens of thousands of local road miles.” Recent infusions of state aid should be helpful, but may not be enough.

Read the full Wisconsin Policy Forum report on Urban Milwaukee.

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7 thoughts on “Transportation: Just How Bad Are Milwaukee’s Roads?”

  1. TosaGramps1315 says:

    How is the state able to find $1.2 billion to widen I-94 from 16th Street to 70th Street – which is seen as unnecessary by many – while the city roads continue to deteriorate?
    My guess is that we cannot count on state aid; Vos and Crew will see to that. Their answer will be to increase local taxes to pay for it. Another tax increase for the city and county should be a non-starter.

  2. rbeverly132 says:

    When our elected legislature last increased the state gas tax (2006) they also eliminated yearly indexing for inflation. We are thus stuck with the same rate for 18 years, while vehicles get more efficient. “Hey – we lower your taxes, never mind lower returns.”

  3. bigb_andb says:

    rbeverly, Car companies don’t make cars any more. It is how they avoid the higher fuel efficiency standards.

    We are using marginally less gas.

  4. David Ferrie says:

    The Republican legislature reminds me of an absentee landlord. Fortunately, unlike a landlord, we can vote these incompetents out.

  5. Wardt01 says:

    I-94 is a federal highway so Fed $ covers it. The local streets are paid for with local dollars .

    “lack of funding” is a bit of a mistatement , a better answer is that politicians are spending our money on other things.

  6. lobk says:

    Wardt01: “… politicians are spending our money on other things.”

    Like themselves!

  7. TosaGramps1315 says:


    …and the Milwaukee Brewers. And let’s remember that ONLY citizens of the city of Milwaukee use the non-federal highway roads within the city. Maybe Milwaukee should host a bake sale to raise the funds necessary to fix their roads!

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