Our Views: Rock County is well-named, ready to help build Interstate 90/39

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When the widening of Interstate 90/39 between Beloit and Madison begins, Rock County stands ready to supply much of the construction material.

Preliminary work is continuing, and major work is scheduled to begin next year. That might be delayed a year as officials sort out state and federal funding for the $950 million project amid budget shortfalls. Regardless, Rock County is rich in limestone, sand and gravel—natural resources vital to the project.

As Neil Johnson reported Sunday, Mother Nature blessed Rock County with abundant limestone and dolomite. The last glacier likewise deposited plentiful sand and gravel. This material is ample to build a base for the Interstate's new lanes and to mix concrete and asphalt for road surfaces.

Rock County has 38 active quarries and pits. Half are within modest drives of the freeway. The expense of trucking makes distance critical.

Exactly how much material the project will absorb is uncertain. The state Department of Transportation suggests the 45-mile widening needs 8.8 million tons of sand, gravel and limestone aggregate. That doesn't even consider material needed to mix concrete and asphalt for surfacing, bridges and interchanges. However, in an interview added to Johnson's online story but too late for the print edition, Kevin McMullen offered a lower estimate. The Janesville native is president of the Wisconsin Concrete Paving Association and guesses at 6.3 million tons of aggregate, including 2 million tons of material for concrete.

“I can't imagine—I don't think anyone could imagine—that there isn't enough capacity right there to build this project,” McMullen said.

The differing estimates raise questions about whether the state is inflating projections in hopes that more quarries and pits open as nearby as possible. One proposal is east of the freeway along Highway 73 and Craig Road. The town of Albion has approved a permit for landowner Crazy Acres and Yahara Materials to reopen the limestone quarry, but Dane County has yet to agree. Neighbors, as you might expect, oppose it. They don't want the noise, dust and truck traffic in their backyards.

One more factor could reduce the freeway project's material needs. McMullen says aggregate needs could fall 30 percent if the state crushes the current surface and recycles it into fill and base material for new surfaces. Bill Kennedy, president of Janesville's Rock Road Companies, expects to see extensive recycling because, as he told Johnson, it make sense and the state transportation department probably will mandate it.

The state would deserve applause for such a move, even if it reduces dollars flowing to local quarry and pit operators. It seems illogical to truck away and bury old material if it can be crushed and reused where it's dug up. Still, this recycling doesn't occur in states where powerful concrete lobbies resist it.

Kennedy notes that with commercial and residential construction down in recent years, a project of this magnitude raises antennas for quarry and pit operators.

“In this business, you sell whenever you can,” he said.

When major construction rolls in earnest, quarry and pit operators will reap revenue from the riches Mother Nature left us. These companies will need a ready supply of employees to do the work. All will mine benefits for our local economy.

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