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New hazardous highway exemption bill making Wisconsin more dangerous

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J. Michael End
August 8, 2011

Everyone knows that cuts in state and federal revenue leave Wisconsin’s local governments to “do more with less.” If you don’t understand, ask your school district.


But some state lawmakers have a new solution for municipalities: Make it easy for them to shirk their responsibilities.


Assembly Bill 180 and Senate Bill 125—still in committee—would change a 162-year-old requirement that cities, counties, villages and towns have specific responsibility to repair local roads and bridges. The change would allow them to avoid responsibility for injuries caused by their failure to maintain bridges and highways.


Aug. 1 marked the fourth anniversary of Minneapolis’ Interstate 35 bridge collapse that killed 13 and injured 145, and we have to wonder about the logic of state Rep. Andre Jacque, R-Green Bay. He’s author of AB 180 and says the money to fix roads will now come from money saved by municipalities by not paying to repair damaged cars and trucks or compensating injured citizens.


Let’s be honest. Regular, local road repairs cost many times more than what a random municipality may pay out in damages when it loses the very rare lawsuit.


In fact, Wisconsinites don’t want to have to sue their local governments for injuries to get roads repaired. Maintaining bridges and roads should be a local responsibility, as has been mandated by Wis. Stats. sec. 893.83(1) for 162 years. The decision to fix dangerously decaying infrastructure shouldn’t be discretionary, as the bill seeks to effect.


Did you know Wisconsin already limits the amount you can recover from your local government if a bridge collapses under your car or a decaying road breaks your axle? It’s true. If your family is injured by negligence of a local highway department, the maximum you can receive is $50,000. Under Jacque’s bill, you’re more likely to receive nothing.


This is certain: The hazardous highway exemption bill won’t benefit Wisconsin residents. Nor will it serve local governments, which won’t reduce insurance costs by no longer being officially responsible for the conditions of their sidewalks, parking lots, bridges and roads.


State officials, such as Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, the Senate sponsor, call the bill “a clarification.” The Wisconsin Association for Justice has another word for it: Abdication—as in abdication of clear responsibility.


Brown County Risk Manager Barbara West told the Green Bay Press-Gazette she thinks the bill is a bad idea.


“The bill relieves the counties of having to do timely repairs, which I don’t think is a good solution,” West said. “To me, that’s not acceptable.”


If this exemption from municipal responsibility passes the Legislature, it will be “every driver, bicyclist and pedestrian for her/himself” when it comes to local road safety. Think about the rural road you drive, or the streets in Green Bay, Madison or Milwaukee that desperately need repair. Should they be left in disrepair?


Contact your legislators and ask: “Why should a law that promotes public safety, on the books since 1849, be gutted? And who, exactly, will this bill actually serve?”


J. Michael End is president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice and a partner at End, Hierseman and Crain, in Milwaukee. The association stands with consumers to promote a fair and effective justice system for every citizen, not just the privileged and wealthy. Address is 44 E. Mifflin St., Suite 402, Madison, WI 53703; phone (608) 257-5741; website wisjustice.org.

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