Fiscal Bureau: $47M In Federal Funding For Local Roads Did Not Disappear

Study Shows Confusion Over Program Changes At DOT Led To Questions About Missing Money

Traffic on the road
Nati Harnik/AP Photo

A miscommunication between the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and regional planning officials led to questions about whether $47 million in federal funding had disappeared from a local roads program.

In early September, officials from regional groups known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations began publicly questioning what happened to federal money slated for road projects in urban areas.

The funding comes from the Federal Highway Administration to the Wisconsin DOT, which distributes it in funding cycles to the regional groups. The money is ultimately sent to city and county transportation officials.

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It was estimated that Green Bay and Appleton were potentially missing $3 million each, Madison was missing nearly $7 million and Eau Claire’s County Highway Department was missing $186,000.

But soon after those questions showed up in news reports around the state, the DOT responded with a statement that none of the state’s metropolitan planning organizations lost or were going to lose their federal funding. The agency said an accounting change had caused confusion among local officials.

That confusion led state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, to ask the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau to get to the bottom of it.

The fiscal bureau issued a memo last Friday that confirmed the DOT’s claim that no money had disappeared and that the confusion stemmed from a June letter from the DOT that said due to a “delay” in the program that distributes the federal funding, the agency was “dropping fiscal year 2018” from a state funding cycle. In the fiscal bureau memo, analyst John Wilson-Tepeli wrote it appears some of the funding local officials expected to get in 2018 had been programed in the prior year’s cycle with the rest becoming available in 2019.

“In sum, despite the confusion surrounding the program changes described in this memorandum, and while some local projects may not be funded in the timeframe that local officials had expected, DOT indicates each … recipient should receive their total allocation amount over the schedule period,” wrote Wilson-Tepeli.

Cowles said the memo helped clarify the situation.

“I’m satisfied at this point,” Cowles said. “Now, the feds will be looking at this according to what fiscal bureau analysts told us. So, we may get their take on it also. But at this point it appears there’s nothing wrong.”

But while the fiscal bureau study reassured local governments that they’d get the federal funding, it didn’t address ongoing communication issues between them and the DOT.

Wisconsin County Highway Association Executive Director Dan Fedderly said he and local officials have become increasingly frustrated with the DOT’s leadership including DOT Secretary Dave Ross, who was appointed to the position by Gov. Scott Walker in early 2017. Fedderly said he’s been working as an intermediary between local transportation departments and the state for nearly 40 years and he’s never experienced a less helpful DOT administration.

“The programs have been there forever. These questions have never arose before. That tells me this department, this current department and the administration within the department simply aren’t doing their job,” Fedderly said.

The fiscal bureau memo ends with a note that Federal Highway Administration officials have indicated they are conducting a review of the DOT program “to ensure that each recipient received project funding that equals their required annual allocation.”