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The Rough Road: Driving Douglas County

08 Jul 2016

In Wisconsin’s great north – where the logging industry, tourists and the public all share the same roads – transportation funding has led to uncertain replacement schedules and a crumbling county highway system.

Spring break-up is a natural phenomenon that has a violent effect on roads in northern Wisconsin. The frost heaves; asphalt and concrete is pushed up and then settled back down out of place. Add in varying soil conditions and heavy truck traffic from the logging industry, and the roads in one of the most scenic parts of the state are quite ugly.

In Douglas County, which maintains 338 miles of county highways, 46 percent of those roads feature a PASER rating of four or less (click here for an explanation of the PASER rating). Another 40 percent feature a rating of eight or less. In all, that’s 86 percent of the county’s roads in need of maintenance, and in some cases, full reconstruction.

County officials, local residents and representatives of the logging industry all agree that something must be done about road conditions in the area, and that a sustainable method of funding must be found to fix the problem.

The Hard Numbers

The Milwaukee-Chicago corridor in southeastern Wisconsin has experienced an infrastructural renaissance. As the population center of the state, it has benefited from significant investment that has helped draw major employers to the region.

At the far opposite corner of the state sits the city of Superior in Douglas County – a city that can make a case as being equally important as a transportation and industrial gateway to the state.

“Douglas County is a unique blend of where industry and nature meet and coexist in harmony,” says Andy Lisak, county administrator, Douglas County. “Douglas County is home to approximately 44,000 people. We’re the fourth largest county geographically in Wisconsin, but really, what makes us different is our location at the head of the lakes. We’re the westernmost port on the Great Lakes and that really defines us as a community.”

The Douglas County area features four Class 1 railroads. The Port of Duluth-Superior is the largest freshwater port in the world. Seventeen percent of all crude oil that comes into the United States from foreign sources comes through Superior via the Enbridge Energy System. And, as with much of northern Wisconsin, the logging industry is the economic and employment engine that drives the region.

Yet, as Wisconsin struggles to find a sustainable way to fund its infrastructure, the county highway system in Douglas County is crumbling. In 2014, the Wisconsin state DOT projected a statewide funding shortfall of about $680 million. More recent projections put that number closer to $750 million. This lack of funding can be seen in the deteriorating asphalt and weight limited roads throughout Douglas County.

“We figure that, if we were to continue along the course that we currently have, it would take us well beyond 50 years to adequately address the needs that exist in regards to providing a safe, adequate and reliable transportation system,” says Lisak.

County Highway Commissioner Jason Jackman agrees with Lisak, recognizing the amount of money needed to properly fund the work required.

“We would need between $5 and $7 million annually and we could start to slowly crawl out of the hole,” says Jackman. “If we were to make major gains, it would take upwards of over $100 million to get the system to where it needs to be.”

The annual transportation budget in Douglas County currently sits at about $2 million. It’s important to note that the budget covers construction, maintenance and equipment purchases required to do the work.

“Unfortunately, with the current funding levels, those roads are unforeseen for a total reconstruct,” says Jackman. “They’re to the point where we’re just band-aiding them with hot mix, asphalt wedges and rut filling. There is no schedule for replacement. We should be repairing or treating at least 20 miles a year. When you’re down to 4 or 5 miles per year, you’re just going backwards.”

“We need to fix the problem,” says Lisak. “It’s going to take all of us. The local communities will do their part, but we need the state to also jump in and come up with a transportation funding system that’s sustainable.”

Effects on the Logging Industry

The issue in the county can be boiled down to two specific examples: County Highways Z and C.

Highway C is pockmarked with potholes and ruts due to logging traffic that the original road was never designed to take. The road is a primary funnel point for trucks heading out of state to a mill in Cloquet, Minnesota. Jackman estimates that reconstruction of Highway C to meet the needs of both local residents and the logging industry would eat up five years of his annual budget – a cost he can’t afford to spend on a single road.

Highway Z presents a whole different set of issues for both the logging industry and local residents. The road – which represents the easiest access to a yard that serves FutureWood Corporation – has been weight limited due to its current condition. Highway Z is an ideal corridor for heavy logging traffic – there are minimal homes or public traffic on that road – but instead, trucks are forced to take a less practical route down Highway E to access the yard.

“When they run us down E, there’s a school, there’s multiple houses, a subdivision, there’s kids playing – it’s very dangerous,” says Tim Pulskamp, vice president, FutureWood Corporation. “If we could get funding to rebuild Highway Z to go straight out to Highway 53 and avoid all of the residential areas, that would be a high priority for us.”

The weight limiting of roads presents additional challenges. Trucks are forced to drop down to 80,000 pounds versus the normal 98,000 pounds on certain roads during the spring break-up, which makes it less practical (and profitable) for logging trucks to bring materials to certain yards.

“We have very limited hours at this yard during the six week period of break-up, simply because there’s very few trucks that will even run down the road at 80,000 pounds,” he says. “Just with fuel and maintenance, it doesn’t make sense.”

Pulskamp also notes that the problem isn’t limited to Douglas County. A weight-limited bridge in neighboring Sawyer County has resulted in logging trucks making a nearly 15-mile detour to reach yards in Hayward. The consequences of that detour can have major effects on trucking costs and the ability of some yards to remain competitive.

“[That detour], in the trucking world, would add about an additional $4 per cord to the trucker’s haul,” says Pulskamp. “Somebody has to cover that cost. It’s a big impact. The producers have a lot of different options. What it comes down to is, ‘Where am I most efficient? Where is the shortest haul? Where is the quickest turnaround to get from the yard back to the woods?’ 15 miles can make a logger’s decision to go the other way [to a competitor’s yard].”

“This country is tough on roads. Over the years, when you travel enough, you get to see that these municipalities are short on budget because, instead of fixing them correctly, they hot mix and patch them. In this climate, in this part of the world, it’s a constant battle keeping the roads up to date.”

Local Residents Concerned Over Safety, Maintenance Costs  

A recent TRIP Report on Wisconsin identified that “deficient roads cost Wisconsin drivers $6 billion annually” with $3.2 billion of that due to additional vehicle operating costs. This can be worse in rural areas like Douglas County where road conditions are particularly poor.

“The local citizens are continually calling the department, asking when their stretch of road will be rebuilt or redone, and expressing the dissatisfaction of the repair bills that they’ve incurred over the years,” says Jackman. “As taxpayers, you can’t blame them.”

Linda and Steve Radzak are both lifelong residents of the area. In fact, Linda has lived her entire life on Highway C. She contributes the poor road conditions – ironically enough – to the lifting of a weight restriction on a nearby bridge that made it practical for logging trucks to run down Highway C. The Radzaks and their neighbors have since seen their road turn into something more resembling a washboard that has caused logging trucks to tip over and raise a general concern for traveling safely on the road.

“I used to be able to ride my bike on that road,” says Linda. “When our daughter was small, we’d pull her in a wagon. People would walk on the road for exercise – but you can’t do that now.”

They’ve also seen first hand that increase in vehicle operating costs due to bad road conditions.

“I replaced a new window in my vehicle out of my own pocket and, within two weeks, a logging truck had flipped up some gravel from the road and busted the window,” she says. “It’s costly.”

“I usually get about 150,000 miles before I’ve got to change struts,” says Steve. “Now it’s 85,000-95,000 miles. I’m replacing ball joints, tie rod ends, front and rear bearings. It’s because of the road. It’s terrible.”

The Radzaks would like to see Highway C completely reconstructed to safely allow for both logging and commuter traffic. And while they understand the budget shortfalls that are preventing the work from being completed, they take a practical approach to finding a solution.

“I invite [state legislators] to come and take a drive on the road I live on,” says Linda. “I think, if anybody did, it would be fixed immediately. It’s pretty sad that my taxes do continue to go up every year – and I’m fine with paying more – but I’d like to see something for my money as well. I think, oftentimes in the state, they rob Peter to pay Paul. Then there’s nothing left for the infrastructure.”