A new Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) Economic Commentary [PDF] compares the quality of roads and bridges in three Midwest states: Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.

The data show that Illinois has the best overall road and bridge quality of the three states. Wisconsin comes in second, while Iowa has the worst road and bridge quality.

Wisconsin’s roads are in need of improvement, and the state must decide which neighbor it wants to be resemble more. Currently, about 21 percent of public, major roads throughout Wisconsin are in poor condition and 14 percent of bridges are in need of repair. Furthermore, a Wisconsin driver in the Madison area loses 36 hours a year in congestion and Wisconsin motorists spend a total of $6 billion in vehicle costs every year due to congestion and traffic crashes. Traffic fatalities increased also by 13 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Full Report: Road and Bridge Report: Wisconsin vs. Illinois vs. Iowa

The Midwest is the transportation hub of America. Recent data finds that the United States would need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring the country’s infrastructure up to par. Revenues must be raised and spent on transportation throughout the Midwest; inadequate investments would negatively affect the long-term competitiveness of the region.

In comparing each state, Illinois spends the least amount per capita at $561 but spends more than twice the amount Wisconsin does overall. In total, Illinois spends $7.2 billion on its state roads, while Wisconsin spent $3.5 billion and Iowa spent $2.0 billion. When a state does not fix its crumbing roads on the front-end, the cost burden is shifted onto motorists on the back-end. Due to underinvestment, Wisconsinites pay about $50 more per year than Iowans and Illinoisans in added vehicle repairs due to poor road conditions.


Overall, Illinois has a better road infrastructure system than both Iowa and Wisconsin. Because Illinois invests more per state-controlled mile than Wisconsin and Iowa combined, the Land of Lincoln has best urban interstate roads and rural interstate roads in the country, according to rankings by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Illinois’ bridges also rank among the best in the nation.

Additionally, Illinois’ road construction workers are more productive and better paid than their counterparts in Iowa and Wisconsin. On average, Illinois’ road construction workers earn a base wage of $41 per hour. Wisconsin road construction workers make about $7 less per hour than Illinois workers, while Iowa road construction workers make $15 less per hour than Illinois workers. In Illinois, road construction workers add $129 in economic value per hour to the state’s economy. Wisconsin has the second-most productive road construction workers, and Iowa’s add the least amount of value to the economy.


Wisconsin must decide what state it wants to “look like” in terms of transportation infrastructure quality and worker productivity. Gutting Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for state projects would cut wages and apprenticeship training for blue-collar construction workers in Wisconsin, resulting in a lower-paid, lesser-skilled workforce. This would undoubtedly bring Wisconsin closer to Iowa, which has lower levels of quality.

Illinois, on the other hand, has the best road and bridge conditions in the nation. This is because Illinois has strong prevailing wage standards, high worker incomes, high productivity, and high-quality urban and rural roads. Illinois’ significant annual investment also results safe outcomes for motorists and good, middle-class careers in construction.

The lack of investment in Wisconsin’s roads is one reason Wisconsin fell 13 spots in the Reason Foundation’s highway rankings to 28th place in the 2016 annual highway report. However, Wisconsin could have even higher levels of productivity, better-skilled workers, and higher-quality roads if the state were to simply enact public construction policies similar to those in Illinois. Ultimately, Wisconsin should invest more in transportation infrastructure and strengthen its prevailing wage laws to create jobs, improve public safety, and boost the economy.

Cover photo from Flickr user SD Dirk.