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Road runoff rules pinch project budgets

By Sean Ryan

Public works directors are cringing over a proposed state rule revision that would drain money from local road projects to support water runoff work.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is revising its runoff rule, and the proposal includes stricter runoff controls for road reconstruction projects. The DNR estimated the rule change could increase county and municipal road project costs by as much as $46.4 million a year statewide.

Every dollar spent building green spaces and underground utilities to capture runoff is one less dollar spent keeping up with roadwork, said David Botts, Beloit’s public works director who served on a DNR advisory commission for the rule revision. Botts said he argued against the revision when the commission considered it, and he will argue against it at DNR public hearings this week.

“Whenever your costs go up,” he said, “the pot of money we have available for maintenance and road reconstruction doesn’t seem to increase.”

The rules base runoff control on the amount of solids in the water that flows off a road and into waterways. The current rule requires road reconstruction projects generate a 40 percent reduction in solids, but the revision would increase that to 50 percent.

The higher standard will require new and more expensive practices, Botts said, prompting municipalities and engineers to experiment with biofiltration systems that channel water into unpaved areas to soak into the ground or into underground water storage systems.

According to the DNR report on the rule revision, those systems could add $15,000 to $126,000 per acre of rebuilt road.

That means Beloit’s $1 million annual road work budget will have less money for paving and road maintenance, Botts said.

County highway departments face the same problem, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association Inc.

The departments already struggle keeping roads maintained under annual contracts with the state, he said. Increasing project costs will make matters worse, Fedderly said.

“We’re going to see more and more maintenance on the state system,” he said, “as the need continues to arise.”

The industry must challenge itself to find new ways to control runoff on the cheap, especially on road projects in densely developed areas where there is less room to create green space, Botts said.

Limited budgets and stricter regulations can drive creative thinking, said Nick Vande Hey, associate and senior project engineer at McMahon Associates Inc., Neenah. Each solution on the table calls for a trade-off, he said. Communities, for example, can extend their curbs with bump-outs that create room for green spaces and biofiltration, he said, but they will sacrifice parking spaces on the street.

Communities also have the option of narrowing the entire street, he said.

“Reduce the pavement width, reduce the street reconstruction cost,” Vande Hey said, “and maybe that frees up a little money to do the storm water costs and it creates space.”

Although narrowing streets can be an elegant engineering solution, Vande Hey said, the process can anger those who wonder why a city would narrow some streets while others remain wide.

“There’s some precedent things as well that are not directly related to engineering,” he said.

Botts said the cost increases envisioned by the DNR are based on common practices in the industry today. The need to avoid those costs will be the mother of invention, he said.

“Our market’s creative enough,” Botts said. “They’re going to come up with ways, but that’s not going to happen next season or the next few seasons.”

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