Community columnist: Safe, clear roads require more than a passing thought
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By David Bretl, Walworth County administrator
The official start of winter may be a few weeks away, but winter weather has definitely arrived. Keeping many area roads clear of snow and ice for the next several months will be the responsibility of the county’s public works department.
While the county plows a lot of roads, it doesn’t plow all of them. 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 folks sometimes ask me is why county trucks maintain state roads like Highway 50 or the interstate. The state actually has an agreement with Walworth County, and most other counties, to maintain its highways. Each county performing state work is reimbursed for the wages it pays its workers as well as for equipment used in the job. This arrangement 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 the need to raise local tax dollars.
The agreement is similar to an arrangement you could have to clear your neighbor’s driveway in the winter. He avoids the hassle of buying and storing a snowblower and going out into the cold. You use the money he pays you to buy a really great machine that you can use on your drive, as well. Whether the state and its counties will continue this neighborly arrangement into the future is the subject of some debate. If budget woes compel the state to inadequately fund the agreement, counties will be put in the position of having to spend local tax dollars to plow state roads or leaving them in a condition that would be unacceptable to the motoring public.
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. All of these miles are divided into 23 sections, known as “beats.” Each beat is the responsibility of an individual public works employee.
Salt is an integral weapon in the war on winter. Walworth County starts the winter season with more than 36,000 tons stored in five sheds and domes located in Elkhorn, Darien and East Troy. Construction of a second dome at the county’s public works yard in Elkhorn was completed in 2009 after a particularly bad winter nearly wiped out our entire supply. Given that this is Wisconsin, I won’t predict that we could never run out. The extra 14 tons stored in the new dome will provide a little extra insurance against this possibility, however.
Anyone who has driven on Wisconsin roads for even one winter will tell you that salt can be a real lifesaver. Keeping it on the roads, however, is easier said than done. Salt that bounces off the surface of the road and into the ditch does no good. To help it stay on the road some of it is actually “brined” at our public works yard. Water, saturated with salt, is often applied before bad weather hits to prevent surfaces like bridge decks from icing. By the same token, it makes no sense to spread salt on the road only to plow it into the ditch. The above-mentioned “beats” were devised, in part, to provide time for the salt to work before the plow passes over it again. Computerized controls in the trucks ensure that a uniform amount of salt is applied to each lane mile.
Despite our best efforts to keep it on the road, salt has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to the environment. Chloride levels of many lakes throughout the state have been rising each year as a result of salt usage. Our own Geneva Lake is no exception. In the mid-1960s, Geneva Lake had a chloride concentration of 8.6 parts per million. By the mid-1970s, that figure had risen to 14.5. Today, it stands at more than 40 parts per million. While Geneva Lake is not in immediate danger of becoming Walworth County’s version of the Great Salt Lake, given the importance of lakes in this county, the issue cannot be ignored. Groups such as the Geneva Lake Environmental Agency are raising awareness of the issue, and a number of communities around sensitive watersheds have taken steps to reduce the amount of salt they apply to roads.
Roads aren’t all that the county has to worry about when the snow begins to fly. Twenty-three acres of parking lots and 3.5 linear miles of sidewalks that serve county buildings need to be cleared, as well. Thinking about 3 1/2 miles of sidewalks might make it a little easier to shovel your own walk this winter.
Keeping nearly 700 miles of highway safe is a big job. On nights that I don’t care to even step outside, county workers are driving heavy equipment, often in “white-out” conditions and on slick roads. While we know the weather will not cooperate in the upcoming months, you can. Give these workers plenty of room on the roads to get their work done this winter.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.
Read Dave Bretl's column regularly in the e-edition of Walworth County Sunday, HERE.