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Milwaukee Uses Asphalt to Buy Roads More Time

Michelle Maternowski
The intersection of North Avenue and 60th Street in Milwaukee.

Local roads across Wisconsin are in need of repair. Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Shilling recently called on GOP lawmakers to help fix the problem.

“The potholes on the streets that I drive on every week keep getting worse, and my city council says we don’t have any resources from the state to fix these roads for the next 18 years,” Shilling says.

City of Milwaukee leaders have found a temporary way to improve roads, though those leaders insist that ultimately, the state and federal governments will have to kick in more money.

“There’s just less money to deal with existing infrastructure because you have massive projects like the Zoo Interchange and widening of I-94 and widening of I-94 to the Illinois state line. All of these projects and the billions of dollars…there’s just no money left for existing infrastructure,” according to Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman.

Bauman says the city relies heavily upon state and federal aid to repair roads and expects to spend about $39 million on major street reconstruction next year. The city would have to come up with around $8 million, while the federal and state governments would cover the remaining $31 million.

“We have 1300 miles of road, and we have a lot of streets that are falling behind in maintenance and are waiting in line for reconstruction. To properly maintain our streets to the level that our citizens expect so that they don’t have to pay excessive amounts for blown out tires, for damaged suspension systems and for the other consequences of deteriorating roadway infrastructure, our real needs are probably double that,” Bauman says.  

One way the city has been improving roads at a lower cost is by relying upon a technique called High Impact Paving. Ghassan Korban, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Dept. of Public Works, touted the strategy on a recent panel about infrastructure concerns.

“It’s a very effective and efficient way to get to more miles with the same amount of dollars previously,” Korban says.

Korban says high impact paving projects typically only take a day or two to complete and focus on the surface. Nearby gutters and curbs go untouched, while workers replace worn out asphalt with more asphalt.

“So we kind of basically did away with the traditional or conventional paving related projects, and we said we’re just going to focus on the ride-ability of a street,” Korban says.

It’s estimated that high impact paving projects will extend the life of a road by seven to 10 years, giving city and state leader’s time to come up with the money for the full repair.

Milwaukee Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter says roads remain one of the biggest concerns for his constituents.

“There was a study done that the average person in Milwaukee was going to have to spend about $750 per year to fix their automobile or to maintain it due to potholes and bad roads,” Carpenter says.

Carpenter says he cosponsored legislation which is now part of the state constitution that prohibits money from the transportation fund to be used for any other purpose. But he says that’s not enough to guarantee adequate funding for roads.

“I would feel comfortable going up to my constituents and talk about raising the gasoline tax and being able to get their support if I told them it was going to be spent on these highway projects and local roads,” Carpenter says.

The DOT has recommended delaying some highway projects, due to lawmakers not wanting to borrow more money.

Gov. Walker recently called upon fellow Republicans in the state Senate to approve more borrowing in order to get those projects back on track. Even if lawmakers agree to Walker's request, it won’t help those city streets now in desperate need of repair.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.