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Road warriors: County, state cooperate to keep lanes clear

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Dave Bretl | December 9, 2013

My hope for a few more weeks of autumn ended Nov. 25 when we received our first real snowfall of the season. Winter not only marks a change of seasons, but it means a change in operations at our public works department as snow removal takes priority over other maintenance activities.

In Wisconsin, road maintenance is the responsibility of one of five jurisdictions. Cities, villages, towns, counties and the state each “own” roads and are responsible for keeping them plowed. If you look closely at the trucks doing the plowing, you can usually tell which units of government they represent. One question that people sometimes ask me is why county trucks maintain state roads like Wisconsin Highway 50 or the interstate. The state actually has an agreement with Walworth County, and most other counties, known as a routine maintenance agreement, to maintain its highways. Each county performing state work is reimbursed by the Department of Transportation for the wages it pays its workers as well as for equipment used in the job.

This arrangement was started more than 85 years ago and has, historically, made sense for both parties. The state doesn't have to hire thousands of highway workers and purchase a fleet of snowplows. Counties, on the other hand, have been able to use revenues from the state work to offset some of the costs of purchasing equipment to service county roads. The system is fairly unique, nationally; only a few other states follow the model.

In recent years, the partnership between state and county government has become strained. Beginning in 2010, the state cut and then froze the amount of money it allocated to pay for its highway work. In some cases, this led to the state ordering less maintenance work during summer months. That situation posed several problems for counties like ours. By taking advantage of our workforce during the winter, but pulling back funding for non-winter projects, the county was forced to increase its share of funding to keep our workers employed year-round. While we do rely on seasonal workers to supplement our crews in the winter, for a host of reasons, it is neither cost-effective nor efficient to do this on a large scale. Many experienced workers will, understandably, move to year-round employment if forced to make the choice.

Another problem with the decreased level of state funding was the uncertainty it created. When a particularly harsh winter caused us to use up our RMA dollars more quickly than projected, we could never be quite sure that the state would find the money to make us whole. In the end, the state always paid its bills, but it wouldn't commit to do so in advance. As a result of this uncertainty, we would sometimes scale back our own roadwork to make sure that we would have enough money to make it through the end of the year.

A final concern created by the state's lack of RMA funding was an overall decline in maintenance. The frequency of mowing along state highways and in medians was reduced. The public, accustomed to seeing county forces performing this work, thought that we were dropping the ball. In reality, the state was simply ordering that less work be done. The situation became so dysfunctional that a number of counties threatened to refuse to sign their state agreements. The worst is hopefully over for the RMA situation. The DOT significantly has increased maintenance funding in the most current budget. Along with the new dollars, however, will come new expectations in the amount of work to be performed. We have added one additional patrol position in our 2014 budget in anticipation of more state work.

As a result of our agreement with Wisconsin, Walworth County workers plow nearly 700 lane miles of state highways in addition to 451 lane miles of our own county roads. This total grows a little bit each year as lanes are added to highways during reconstruction projects. The recent Wisconsin 50 project, for example, added 2.5 miles to this total. All of these miles are divided into 23 sections, known as “beats.” Each beat is the responsibility of an individual public works employee. The average Walworth County beat is 50 miles. The additional employee will eventually bring this average down to 47 miles. While this is an improvement, DOT guidelines recommend beats of between 35 miles and 45 miles in length.

One part of the winter season that I don't look forward to is reviewing accident claims involving our plows. I am amazed at the skill of our crews, given the treacherous conditions in which they work and the size of the equipment they operate. A common theme in these accidents is a lack of patience by motorists. The majority of accidents involving snowplows and vehicles occur when a snowplow is rear ended or hit while being passed. Keep in mind that many snow plows have wing blades that typically extend beyond the width of the truck. These blades, which can weigh as much as a compact car, are sometimes unnoticed by motorists until it is too late.

For your safety, and that of our crews, take your time when driving this winter. Remember that warmer weather is just seven or eight short months away.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.
- See more at: http://www.walworthcountytoday.com/article/20131125/WC/131129814/1169#sthash.rViDG9V9.dpuf
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.
- See more at: http://www.walworthcountytoday.com/article/20131125/WC/131129814/1169#sthash.rViDG9V9.dpuf

 

Dave Bretl is the  Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

 
 



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