You can’t learn to operate a 30-ton vehicle in a parking lot with a weight limit of 5 tons without the parking lot turning into asphalt crumble. And besides, if you’re learning to drive a semitrailer truck, a fire engine, police car or ambulance, it’s unlikely a parking lot will give you a real sense of what it is like to be on the road.
In October 2018, the Blackhawk Technical College Board agreed to buy a 38-acre parcel of farmland just north of the college where the college planned to build a specialized emergency vehicle operator course, or EVOC, for driver training.
But after touring other courses and talking to businesses and public safety officials, the college came up with a much more ambitious plan. It wants to build a public safety and transportation center that would include an EVOC, a specialized area that would mimic an ice-covered road, specialized areas for semitrailer truck and motorcycle training, a practice tower for firefighters, a “tactical village” for police exercises, a more realistic training area for electrical power distribution students, a water retention pond that would double as a place to train search-and-rescue divers, an educational building, and a new home for the center for transportation studies.
The town of Rock’s zoning committee has approved the plans, and the college will break ground on the EVOC this spring. The state allows technical colleges to spend $1.5 million on new construction in a two-year period. At that rate, the whole project, which could cost between $16 million and $30 million, would take between 10 and 20 years to complete.
Unless, of course, the college decides to go to referendum.
After BTC bought the land, staff members and administrators went on a tour of other EVOC sites in the state.
Rob Balsamo, the fire science, EMT and EMS program coordinator, led the group, which also included local firefighters, police officers, and representatives from bus and trucking companies.
“What we then looked at was safety, space and growth,” Balsamo told a faculty group this week. “That was really the driving factor to the point we are right now.”
Using part of the college’s parking lot for training is risky because of student and transit traffic. In addition, the area isn’t designed for trainees operating large vehicles.
Take, for example, a driver in the police academy who was given an unexpected instruction and instead of hitting the brake, he panicked and hit the accelerator. He hit a bank, went airborne and hit an oak tree, Balsamo said. Similar accidents could happen on a training track, but the setting would be designed to minimize the damage.
BTC spokeswoman Jen Thompson said many local agencies and companies have to travel outside of the county for such training. In addition, the college’s police academy has to rent out Blackhawk Farms Speedway just across the state line for training.
“We’ve had a lot of police departments in the (technical college) district and some outside of the district say that if we built an EVOC track, they would use it,” Balsamo said. “We’ve had trucking companies say the same thing.”
At the same meeting, Pierner commended the planning team for creating a “multiuse facility on a relatively small footprint” but warned its development is not a sure thing.
Pierner and his staff are still meeting with law enforcement groups, fire chiefs, and other city and town officials to make sure they would support such a venture.
The Blackhawk Technical College Foundation has agreed to pay for the cost of a consultant to do community surveys.
Based on the feedback the college gets from those surveys and user groups, Pierner will approach the board about “critical decisions in terms of funding.”
For now, the project is divided into two-year phases to stay within the state’s spending limits.
The college spent about $600,000 on the land, meaning it has $900,000 to spend. Pierner said that will be enough to complete the basic track and part of a skidpad.
The only way BTC could raise more money is through donations or a referendum. Such a referendum would require convincing voters of the project’s importance.
At Wednesday’s meeting, a staff member asked if the college had pursued contributions from its partners.
Pierner stressed the design had not been approved by the board yet, so it was too early for contributions.