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Two horses and buggies pass near Thorp on Jan. 30, 2020. The Wisconsin Legislature is considering two bills that would allow counties to impose a maximum annual fee of $100 to identify and differentiate animal-drawn vehicles and their owners from one another.

If a bill working its way through the state legislature is passed, Wisconsin residents regularly using animal-drawn vehicles on roadways could be required to register their buggies.

One of the sponsors of Assembly Bill AB612, State Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, testified at the hearing on the bill held by the Assembly Committee on Local Government Dec. 12. Representing Wisconsin’s 69th Assembly District, Kulp stated his district, composed of parts of Marathon, Clark and Wood counties, has seen an increase over the past few years of buggy accidents resulting in nine deaths.

If passed by the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, the legislation would allow counties, town, villages or cities to enact an ordinance requiring animal-drawn vehicle owners to register their wagons, buggies or other wheeled carts pulled by an animal that’s customarily kept within the county and regularly used for transportation on public highways.

The registration fee isn’t to exceed $100 annually, and any county opting to collect registrations would send 50 percent of the fee to the town where the vehicle is customarily kept. The moneys collected could only be used for transportation-related purposes as well as administrative costs for collecting the fee.

It’s generally understood such ordinances would mostly affect Amish families, since they largely rely on horse-drawn buggies as their mode of travel. Teamsters using horses for field work and occasional buggy drivers would not be regulated under the provisions of the bill.

In his statement, Kulp told the local government committee that law enforcement agencies have informed their representatives registering animal-drawn vehicles would help officers identify the owners of animal-drawn vehicles.

Scott Parks, Marathon County sheriff, says he could support the bill because it would help law enforcement when officers need to identify people involved in horse-drawn vehicle crashes.

“It would permit us a quicker identification of persons involved and notification of the families,” said Parks. “It would aid law enforcement in the service we provide which is maintaining the safety of our communities.”

Parks’ department has responded to accidents between motorized and horse-drawn vehicles resulting in fatalities. In the event of accidents where occupants of the horse-drawn vehicle become incapacitated, officers would be able to identify the victims and to notify their families if a registration tag is attached to the buggy.

“We occasionally have to do this with motor vehicle crashes where the persons inside the vehicle are not carrying identification on their person, so we need to contact the registered owner of the vehicle involved to determine who the occupants are,” said Parks.

Parks also cites occasions when a horse-drawn vehicle might be creating a hazard. If a registration tag is displayed on the outside of the buggy, law enforcement could more easily locate the vehicle. They would then be able to speak to the driver advising him or her on the proper operation of the vehicle.

“Again this is similar to what we regularly do with motorized vehicles,” said Parks.

Bill co-sponsor Loren Oldenberg, R-Viroqua, represents the 96th State Assembly District. His district includes much of Vernon County, which has an estimated 1,400 Amish families.

According to Vernon County Highway Commissioner Phil Hewitt, Vernon County doesn’t have any regulations prohibiting horse-drawn equipment to use its roadways. He would support the bill because of the additional income it could provide for highway maintenance.

“Personally, I don’t feel it is right to identify any single type of transportation as the only cause of any road damage,” said Hewitt. “Does a horse-drawn buggy do more damage than a log truck at 100,000 pounds or a manure wagon at 140,000 pounds.? Probably not. That being said, I do feel that everyone who uses the roads needs to pay a fee.”

Funding for highways in the state is mostly raised through the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Since animal-drawn vehicle operators don’t buy gasoline for their horses and buggies or as of yet, don’t pay a registration fee, they aren’t contributing to the state or local transportation funds.

“The biggest problem with horse traffic is the steel shoe and the hardened material that is placed on the shoe for traction and longevity,” said Hewitt. “That hardened material will crush the aggregate or pull a little bit of the oil that binds the aggregate out, creating a small hole that will only get bigger; this allows water to penetrate the surface and the damage grows from there. When the horses travel up and down the hills, the aggregate can get knocked off the asphalt and now the protective surface is gone, so the damage will occur more quickly.”

As an example of the funding needed to fix and maintain roadways, Hewitt cites a section of county highway redone five years ago costing $1 million. The life expectancy of the stretch of roadway was to have been seven to eight years, which included a chip seal and some minor patching during that time span.

Five years later the surface of the road had deteriorated and a granite chip seal was applied at the cost of $160,000 dollars. Two years later, a steep hill in the stretch of roadway was in the end stages of a complete failure. Hewitt’s department applied a special granite mix overlay to try to add another 10 to 15 years of life at the cost of $50,000 dollars.

Hewitt admits the damage caused specifically by horse-drawn equipment can’t be determined since heavy trucks and farm equipment as well as light vehicles also use the county’s highways.

“Will an annual fee generate enough funds to fix all the problems with Vernon County roads? No, it will not, but it will help,” said Hewitt.

A hearing on the Wisconsin Senate’s companion bill — SB558 — was held Jan. 8 in the Capitol building.

Anyone wanting to give input on the bills are encouraged to contact their state representatives.