Will registration fee for horse-drawn buggies gain traction?

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
A horse and buggy warning sign is seen on Highway 186 in the town of Arpin. A proposed law would require horse-drawn vehicles to pay a registration fee to operate on the roadway.

Should Wisconsin residents guiding horse-drawn buggies and farm equipment down rural byways be forced to pony up money used to upkeep those roads they share with motor vehicles?

News that Wisconsin lawmakers Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, have introduced legislation that would give counties the green light to charge all animal-drawn vehicles a registration fee has sparked debate on both sides of the issue.

"I can't believe the government would think of imposing fees on the Amish for driving their buggies up and down the road," said Mike Smith of Marathon County. "I can't believe they think a horse and buggy could possibly cause as much damage as the big farm equipment out there on the highways and back roads."

Others believe the burden should be equally shared.

"If Amish buggies are contributing to tearing up the roadways – or anyone's buggy for that matter – I have no problem with counties wanting to have a registration fee of less than $100," said Rohn Bishop of Fond du Lac County. "Anyone using the roads should contribute to maintaining them."

Kulp, whose district encompasses Clark County where there is a concentrated population of Amish residents, says many members of town boards in rural communities have testified that the horses used to pull buggies, farm equipment and wagons do, indeed, cause damage to roadways — especially new roads.

"Town officials have provided specific instances where there has been up to $100,000 of damage caused to new roads by the horses' hooves," Kulp said. "Horseshoes with special tips on them that allow the horses to grip the roadways and to provide more stability — especially on the hills in southwestern Wisconsin — that really do a lot of damage."

Co-author, Sen. Marklein, told The Center Square that several communities have experienced difficulty in managing animal-drawn vehicle traffic, especially when there is an accident or damage to the road. And that law enforcement may have trouble identifying the driver or owner of the buggy.

The law, if passed, would give counties the option of enacting a registration fee for horse-drawn vehicles of no more than $100 per year. Kulp said the funds could be used for administration, transportation needs or road repair.

Town lawmakers have testified that large cleats on horse shoes used to pull buggies, wagons and other farm implements cause damage to rural roads - especially newly paved roads.

"There are different Amish groups around the state who recognize they have some responsibility in sharing the roads and have given some money to their local townships to show what good citizens they are," Kulp said. "What I am hoping is this will start a conversation between the Amish and local governments."

Attempts to enact local laws to protect vulnerable users on the road such as the Amish were met with significant push back from residents in Wood County, despite a string of nine deaths in less than nine years.

RELATED: Residents push back against proposed Amish-buggy rules

Two years ago residents pressured Wood County authorities to kill a proposal that would force the Amish and other horse-carriage operators to install numerous safety features and get driver's licenses and insurance. The ordinance was drafted in part by County Board member Bill Winch of Vesper, who said it was proposed to save lives.

The measure would have required animal-drawn vehicles to have windshields, seat belts, child car seats, rear-view mirrors, headlights and tail lights. It would also have required those who operate the carriages to have a a driver's license and vehicle insurance.

Many community members said the issue is not the horse-drawn carriages, but the negligent drivers who don't know how to properly navigate around buggies on the road.

Kulp says he understands there may be resistance to the proposed legislation and doesn't know whether there will be enough traction to get it approved in the Assembly and then the Senate. 

Rep. Joan Ballweg of Green Lake County tried to reintroduce a similar bill back in 2008 allowing local governments to force Amish and others who travel by horse-drawn vehicles to pay registration fees.

Both Illinois and Indiana require plates for horse-drawn vehicles.

Kulp says he is sensitive to the rights of the Amish and respecting their way of life. Kulp whose mother is Amish and his father Old Order Mennonite, says the legislation is personal to him.

"I actually have cousins in Michigan who lost a couple of their children because they were hit from behind," he said. 

RELATED: Pickup hits Amish horse-drawn carriage, killing 2 kids

At the end of the day, Kulp says the proposed legislation would give counties the option to open the conversation with local residents.

"It's the right place to have this discussion. Some may decide the legislation doesn't make sense and their Amish neighbors are wonderful and they will work to find different ways to deal with this rather than putting the infrastructure in place to exact and collect a fee," he said. "But it's really as much about starting the conversation."

The Wisconsin Towns Association is in support of the proposed legislation.