Jim Reilly stood on a scissor lift as misty rain ran down the sheets of metal roofing he was hoisting onto a farm shed in the unincorporated community of Leyden.
About 100 feet to the north, a pickup truck rumbled west on Highway 14. The pickup was going about 70 mph, and its tires and ladder rack clattered as the truck jittered over shallow potholes.
Reilly’s head jerked up at the staccato noise. A few seconds later, the pickup truck nailed another patch of potholes and alligator-skin cracks farther along Highway 14.
Reilly’s head jerked up again. He looked out at the highway.
“What do I think about the condition of Highway 14?” Reilly said. “I think everybody can send our last governor, Scott Walker, a big thank-you card that says, ‘Thanks for f——— up the road.’”
Whether the former governor’s administration is responsible might be a subject of political debate, but state engineering assessments show the 13-mile stretch of Highway 14 between Janesville and Evansville has been in a state of serious and deepening deficiency for years.
The stretch has been slated for $7.5 million in resurfacing and reconfiguration since 2013, when design work for the project began.
But the project has been delayed years.
The state Department of Transportation delayed construction from 2017 to 2019 and then more recently from 2019 to 2021.
The DOT blames the delays on an independent consultant the agency said made numerous mistakes platting the rights-of-way for the project. DOT officials say it’s taken several years for a second consultant and the DOT to iron out new project plans.
It could take at least another year for the DOT to acquire additional rights-of-way for the project, DOT spokesman Michael Bie wrote in an email to The Gazette.
Meanwhile, the condition of the road worsens.
The federal highway is used by thousands of commuters between Janesville and Madison, and it also bears the burden of heavy farm machinery.
Traffic counts show the highway carries as many as 12,000 vehicles a day.
Local officials say it’s been almost 20 years since the last time the road had its surface replaced.
According to the DOT, the condition of some sections in 2017 ranked as low as 26 on the 100-point scale of the Pavement Condition Index, a statistical analysis the state relies on to grade the condition of road surfaces. Other stretches of Highway 14 ranked at 40 out of 100.
In the two years since measurements were taken, neighbors, commuters and town and county officials say the road has continued to deteriorate from heavy truck and farming traffic and the more recent vagaries of a particularly nasty Wisconsin winter.
Meanwhile, the DOT is paying Rock County highway crews to patch and fill potholes and replace numerous failing patches.
One woman who declined to give a Gazette reporter her name said she’s lived on a farm property along Highway 14 since 1962.
“I’ve never seen this road in this bad of shape for this long of a time,” she said. “We just keep getting letters from the state saying it’s going to take longer to fix the road.”
The state Legislature this week is expected to take up Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed roads budget. DOT chief Craig Thompson said in a release the budget includes an additional $320 million for the highway rehabilitation program—money Thompson said the state needs to spend to prevent more than 21 projects from being “delayed or removed” from state highway program.
For a road such as Highway 14, it’s not clear how much more time there is to spare.
In Facebook postings, some commuters who use Highway 14 daily bemoaned the condition of the road between Evansville and Janesville. Some said the road in spots is potholed and broken up on the shoulders, at the center line and in the middle of lanes.
That can leave a 3-foot slot of unmarred pavement to navigate.
“Highway 14 between Evansville is so bad ... thought I was making the trench run on the Death Star,” the post reads.
In some of those areas, the spaces between potholes have broken up to the point that single holes have become interconnected. Some holes are at least 3 inches deep and extend down through the asphalt and into the gravel below, according to measurements taken by a Gazette reporter.
“You can’t really call that potholes,” said Brad Huse, a town of Janesville resident who drives Highway 14 every day. “It’s more like potholes that are joining forces together to create something even bigger and meaner. I don’t know what you call it.”
Janell McMahon, who owns J’s Feeds along Highway 14 in Leyden, said she’s got a name for it.
“I’d pretty much call it a missing section of road,” she said. “And with water getting in there all the time, it’s not improving it any.”
Evansville resident Amber Yanyo uses Highway 14 five days a week to get to work in Janesville.
Yanyo said she recently upgraded from a small car to a Chevolet Equinox, a small SUV.
“I feel like I could really tell in a small car with small wheels how much worse Highway 14 was getting, to the point where I was ... I don’t want to say afraid ... but I was concerned about driving on parts of that highway. I was afraid I’d end up with a flat tire,” Yanyo said.
“In about February, I noticed 14 was starting to get worse a lot faster. A lot more bumpy. That definitely was one deciding factor for me getting an SUV. I knew I’d be traveling on a road that’s really not the best.”
Rock County Public Works Director Duane Jorgenson, the county’s highway chief, said county crews this spring have been using an asphalt and rock patching compound to mend Highway 14.
The goal, he said, is to keep the deteriorated stretches as safe for travel as possible until the state project starts in 2021.
Over the last year, he said, the county has billed the state for more than $400,000 in pothole filling along the stretch of Highway 14 between Evansville and Janesville, along Highway 51 south of Janesville, which the state is now resurfacing, and along few other state highways.
Jorgenson said water infiltration, probably more than heavy traffic, is the main force that contributes to continued breakup of any highway with pavement that’s seriously compromised. More water means more potholes.
He indicated the DOT might direct county crews this year to use asphalt to grade off and cap some of particularly broken-up sections of Highway 14.
He said that could bide some time before major project work.
The DOT also is examining whether it’s possible to speed up right-of-way acquisitions and get the project moving by 2020, Bie wrote. But those acquisitions can be time consuming in part because they involve securing land for multiple intersections that are slated for complicated upgrades, including lane reconfigurations.
Wayne Udulutch, Center Town Board chairman, said residents during a town hall meeting late last year urged the DOT to move forward on the Highway 14 project sooner than 2021.
It’s become apparent, Udulutch said, that Highway 14 has deteriorated beyond stopgap fixes.
“It don’t do any good to put a good roof on a bad foundation,” he said.
The first cars slowed to a stop hours before the line started moving.
By the time it did, the cars stretched a mile from Blackhawk Community Credit Union on West Court Street.
The drivers and passengers all had a reason for spending a beautiful Saturday cooped inside their cars. All wanted bricks salvaged from the former General Motors plant.
People have clamored for GM bricks ever since plant demolition began more than a year ago. Saturday was their long-awaited chance to score two bricks per vehicle as Blackhawk hosted drive-up brick distribution.
Maybe those people spent their entire careers at the assembly plant. Maybe a parent or relative worked there. Maybe they just wanted a piece of Janesville history.
The first car in line was driven by a man who made concrete and milk deliveries to the plant years ago but never worked for the automaker.
Patrick Florick arrived at 9:30 a.m.—three and a half hours before distribution started—and passed time by reading The Gazette and completing a Sudoku puzzle. His time inside the plant was fleeting—one of his most vivid memories is the 1950s-themed cafeteria—but he wanted to get a local memento, he said.
During Florick’s visits to the GM cafeteria, he might have spotted Beverly Strickert. She helmed the cafeteria’s candy wagon and met her husband, Henry, at the plant, she said.
Henry died nine months ago, and shortly before that, one of their sons died as well. The bricks help Strickert overcome the personal losses she’s felt over the past two years—she will save one brick and place another on her husband’s headstone, she said.
It’s been 10 years since GM shut its doors, and as time passes, fewer people in Janesville retain a connection to the assembly plant. The thought of spending hours in line to get two chunks of baked clay might seem silly to some.
Dale Bernstein, a 35-year GM worker and former union president, champions the efforts Janesville has made to reinvent itself in a post-GM world. But he wants those without a link to the plant to understand how much it meant to the city.
“Everyone who worked there was basically family,” he said. “You don’t find that too much anymore at large corporations. Those days are gone.”
Kate Hommen wants her young daughters to appreciate the importance of GM. Her dad, Wayne Subrt, spent 35 years inside the factory and died from cancer one year ago, she said.
Once the legacy center opens inside Blackhawk’s proposed downtown headquarters, Hommen will bring 10-year-old Savanna and 3-year-old Cash to learn more about where their grandpa worked.
Hommen and her daughters arrived in line shortly before 10 a.m. The girls passed time watching movies from Disney’s “Cars” trilogy, an intentional choice, Hommen said.
The cars in the waiting line Saturday were mostly GM products—Chevys, GMCs, Buicks. There were a few Fords and Hondas mixed in, but the Chevy bowtie logo seemed to dominate.
Dennis Hurt drove his 1970 black Chevy Impala nearly 700 miles from Pittsburg, Kansas, to get a brick. The car was built in Janesville, and despite that being one of Hurt’s only connections to the plant, he wants to display the bricks with his other auto memorabilia, he said.
One man wasn’t in a car at all.
There was no walkup service, but Ron Jeors took the bus and sat in line in his walker. During his nearly 40-year career, he can remember one date that changed his life—Aug. 28, 1978.
It was the day GM and the union gave him an ultimatum: get treatment for alcoholism or lose his job. Jeors has been sober ever since, and he credits GM with helping save his life.
Steve Knox, a Blackhawk board member and brick distribution volunteer, said the event finished at about 4:30 p.m. Everybody in line got bricks, and a few bricks remain but not enough to do another giveaway next weekend. Some organizers had suggested that might have been a possibility.
Blackhawk Legacy Center Director Dona Dutcher said the event ran smoothly given the task of distributing more than 3,000 bricks. New site owner Commercial Development Company has been a “great partner” allowing Blackhawk to obtain bricks, she said.
It’s possible there will be more bricks given away in the future, but nothing is planned right now.
Knowing all the people who passed through the line wanted to honor GM brought Dutcher happiness, she said.
“It feels good because I know what it means to people,” Dutcher said. “Every car has multiple stories in it. This is cool to be a part of.”
Judith “Judy” Dewey
Mary Margaret Giannone
Barbara Ann Hayes
Luann Kay Komprood
Martelle Kathryn Onsrud
Wayne A. Plautz
Henry C. Schoeberle
Michael E. Stefanik
Hillary Lynn Tabbert
Barbara D. Thompson
They’re talking at the Capitol about jailing people. Imposing steep fines. All sorts of extraordinary, if long-shot measures to force the White House to comply with Democratic lawmakers’ request for information about President Donald Trump stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
This is the remarkable state of affairs between the executive and legislative branches, unseen in recent times, as Democrats try to break through Trump’s blockade of investigations and exert congressional oversight of the administration.
“One of the things that everybody in this country needs to think about is when the president denies the Congress documents and access to key witnesses, basically what they’re doing is saying, Congress you don’t count,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
“We cannot—we simply cannot—have a presidency that is run as if it were a king or a dictator in charge,” said Cummings, D-Md.
Trump’s blanket refusal to engage in oversight—and Democrats’ unrelenting demand that he do so—is testing the system of checks and balances with a deepening standoff in the aftermath of Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Trump derides the oversight of his business dealings and his administration as “presidential harassment” and has the backing of most Republicans in Congress. With Mueller’s work completed, Trump wants closure to what he has long complained was a “witch hunt.”
“No more costly & time consuming investigations,” Trump tweeted.
Stunned by the administration’s refusal to allow officials to testify or respond to document requests, lawmakers have been left to think aloud about their next steps against the White House.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has given Attorney General William Barr a Monday deadline to comply with a subpoena demanding a redacted version of Mueller’s report, along with its underlying evidence, or face a contempt charge.
Barr could face another subpoena to appear before Nadler’s committee after skipping a hearing Thursday in a dispute over the rules for questioning him. Nadler, D-N.Y., also has subpoenaed testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.
Cummings is considering what to do on several fronts, including about testimony from Carl Kline, the White House’s personnel security director. Cummings said Kline declined last week to answer specific questions in a closed-session hearing about the security clearances granted for White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president’s son-in-law and daughter. Also, the House Ways and Means Committee is being refused access to Trump’s tax returns.
Republicans are largely declining to join Democrats in pursuing the investigations any further.
“It is over,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Barr testified last week before the committee. Graham, R-S.C., has asked Mueller to respond to Barr’s testimony, particularly after the disclosure of a letter the special counsel sent Barr complaining about attorney general’s summary of the 400-plus page Russia report.
The rejection of oversight is the latest and perhaps most high-profile example of the new normal in the Trump era. Gone are the daily White House press briefings, once a fixture in Washington. Top department vacancies go unfilled, leaving fewer officials to respond to congressional requests. Agencies across the government seem more insular than before.
Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer said what’s unfolding between the White House and Congress “fits in a long history of bad moments when the branches clash over vital information.”
While other presidents, including Barack Obama, have resisted congressional oversight in certain situations, including during Attorney General Eric Holder’s blockade of the “Fast and Furious” gun-running investigation, Zelizer said “Trump is going further by saying no to everything.”
To Zelizer, “certainly there are echoes of Watergate when the administration did everything possible to stonewall Congress as they undertook legitimate investigations and hearings into presidential corruption.”
He said presidents with “too much power” can easily make decisions that undermine government operations in everyday lives. “Should citizens care? Of course, the restraint of presidential power is an essential part of our Constitution and the health of our democracy,” Zelizer said.
Impeachment is being shelved, for now. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her leadership team are taking a step-by-step approach to the White House standoff, declining any rush to impeachment proceedings, as some in her party want, for a more incremental response.
Pelosi did note this past week that obstructing Congress was one of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.
“Impeachment is never off the table, but should we start there?” Pelosi said Friday. “I don’t agree with that.”