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WisDOT reins in road fixes

Paul Snyder
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County leaders are predicting short-term savings will lead to long-term costs if they must follow a state order to restrict road maintenance work to areas posing safety threats.

“To be perfectly honest, I do understand that there are some things you’d really like to do but just can’t afford,” said Andy Ross, Columbia County supervisor and chairman of the county’s Highway Committee. “But it’s like looking at a roof you know has a leak and hoping it doesn’t rain.”

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation in May began telling counties to trim maintenance operations, but some counties are only now reviewing the full list of directives.

Columbia County’s Highway Commission got its first look Thursday at WisDOT’s orders, which limit work such as litter control, road surveillance, mowing and pavement maintenance on state roads because of Wisconsin’s financial difficulties.

The state contracts with county highway departments for basic maintenance operations, so most departments do as directed, said La Crosse County Highway Administrator Dennis Osgood.

“It’s basically a matter of doing the best we can with the money given to us,” he said.

The memo was drafted when the state was still working on its budget, but the heart of directive likely will remain the same now that the state numbers are firmed up, said Dave Vieth, WisDOT’s director of the Bureau of Highway Operations. But he said WisDOT and county highway departments must strike a balance between preventive and reactive maintenance.

“You can’t always make decisions on a worst-first basis,” Vieth said. “That’s usually the first sign you’re tumbling out of control.”

Vieth said there is no way every crack in the state’s roads will be sealed this year, but WisDOT is not telling counties to completely stop doing the work.

“We’re just trying to help provide even clearer guidance,” he said.

Ross said avoiding even basic pavement maintenance now may save a few dollars this year, but cost a lot more next year.

T.O. Boge, Columbia County’s assistant highway administrator, and Osgood agreed.

“If you don’t take care of things as you go and are just putting things off for the time being, conditions will get worse,” Boge said. “It’s a decision that has to be made at every level — we’re certainly making a lot of them in the county.”

It is a burden the state, counties and municipalities must carry in tough budget circumstances, Boge said.

Vieth said it is tempting for WisDOT to simply perform reactionary maintenance, but he said the state agency will do its best to protect roads.

But the line between basic maintenance and safety needs grows thin when cash is short, Ross said.

“I’m willing to keep my fingers crossed and hope it doesn’t rain — for a while,” he said. “If a crack or two turns into larger safety problems next year, though, I have to be concerned as an elected official.”

County work priorities (PDF)

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