Amid an outbreak of COVID-19 that’s put much of public life on pause, infrastructure work in the upper Midwest is plowing forward.
Even as many workers hunker down in home offices, road and bridge improvements are still on track in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, although public events are on hold for now.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said last week it was still planning to advance road projects despite the COVID-19 outbreak, which has prompted government officials to shut down a variety of businesses in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order directing residents to stay home – but exempted transportation systems even as he required various so-called non-essential companies to close.
In a statement released the same day, a WisDOT spokeswoman is taking various precautions in response to the outbreak. The department has at least $80.6 million in work scheduled to go up for bid in its next letting on April 14.
“This includes social distancing and situational awareness, and we will make adjustments as necessary to help keep projects on schedule,” said Kristin McHugh of WisDOT. “Work on Wisconsin’s infrastructure not only helps drive and support our economy, it is essential for safe and reliable transportation.”
Wisconsin’s neighbors Illinois and Minnesota will also keep projects going during the outbreak.
The Illinois Department of Transportation, in a statement following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s issuance of a shelter-in-place order, said it was taking steps to ensure the coming construction season proceeds normally.
“There are no plans to stop or suspend construction because of this health crisis,” according to the agency. “Workers who support the construction of critical or strategic infrastructure are considered essential by the Department of Homeland Security and have a special responsibility to maintain a normal work schedule. With our partners in industry, we will strive to keep this construction season on schedule.
In Minnesota, transportation officials are moving forward with plans to open bids for 18 projects throughout the state. The projects have an estimated combined value of $65 million, according to MnDOT documents.
Jake Loesch, MnDOT’s senior director of communications, said that letting will “proceed as planned.”
“At this point, our plan is to proceed forward with future lettings as well. Our team will analyze the results of the March letting to see if any adjustments need to be made,” Loesch said in an email.
“At this point everything is moving forward as planned,” he said. “Of course, given the quickly evolving situation and unknowns about COVID-19, MnDOT remains in close communication with contractors so we can be prepared and plan ahead if impacts arise.”
Still, it’s not exactly business-as-usual for transportation departments.
Earlier this month, MnDOT said that it’s “indefinitely” postponing all public meetings and project open houses “to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and protect the public health and well-being of all Minnesotans” It’s a step transportation officials in Wisconsin and Illinois are taking too.
Last April, MnDOT released its 2019 transportation plan, which called for spending $1.2 billion on road and bridge construction and $55.6 million on “multi-modal” projects, such as airport, port, transit and railroad work. MnDOT typically informs the public about its spring and summer construction plans around this time of year.
That was similar in scope to the 2018 plan, which called for 253 new and ongoing projects and spending $1.1 billion.
Matt Zeller, executive director of the Concrete Paving Association of Minnesota, believes it’s a good idea to move forward with bid lettings and projects. Many people on road construction crews are working inside a cab where they are safe and isolated, he added.
“Everyone believes we can get through this,” he said. “When you have a short construction season as we do, it would be tough to shut the whole machine off and get it fired up again.”
– Brian Johnson of Finance & Commerce contributed to this story