/ Articles / DOT suggests photos of crumbling roads, not crumbling roads, endangers public safety

DOT suggests photos of crumbling roads, not crumbling roads, endangers public safety

April 17, 2020 by Richard Moore

All across northern Wisconsin there’s widespread concern about deteriorating and buckling roads, but, at least to one official in the state Department of Transportation, the threat to public safety seems to come from photos of those crumbling conditions in The Lakeland Times.

After a recent story on the unprecedented number of roads falling into disrepair across the region, The Times began running a “Pothole of the Week” photo, underscoring just how bad road conditions really are.

Those photos caught the attention of DOT employees and especially of DOT regional spokeswoman Tegan Griffith, who reacted quickly by wondering whether photos of potholes and deteriorating roads could be encouraging the public to put themselves in harm’s way.

The newspaper could be endangering the public, Griffith cautioned the newspaper.

“I recently came back from vacation and was shown Pothole of the Week photos in The Lakeland Times,” Griffith wrote in an email to staff photographer Dean Hall. “This morning, I received a report of motorists participating in some unsafe behavior when it comes to collecting photos of potholes in roads. One instance consisted of a vehicle pulled over with two individuals running into traffic to capture a photo of a pothole.”

The report of unsafe behavior came to Griffith from a DOT employee, the newspaper later learned. In the email, Griffith said there could be a link between photos in the paper and the public rushing into traffic to take their own pictures.

But she also said she had no evidence that was the case.

“While I certainly cannot link the two, they could be related,” she wrote.

Griffith suggested adding a safety message along with the photo.

This week Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker pushed back on the notion that documenting bad road conditions with photographs endangered the public.

“When people have to dodge potholes, when people risk losing control of their vehicles when they run into caverns in the roadway, when people suffer serious economic consequences because their vehicles are damaged from substandard highways, that’s what is endangering the public,” Walker said. “Public safety is endangered by the state’s lack of effort to address the situation, not the newspaper’s exposure of that lack of effort.”

Walker said the DOT’s attitude was brazen.

“When the newspaper exposes the true nature of our road conditions, the bureaucratic response is not to respond to people’s wants and needs but to blame anyone who calls them out,” he said. 

In fact, Walker said, the newspaper has only published staff photographer Dean Hall’s photos in the Pothole of the Week feature, and has not received any photos from the public seeking their publication.

“One wonders just where these supposed people running into traffic to take photos went,” Walker said. 

Walker did say some people had called to suggest locations where the newspaper could take photos of seriously deteriorating roads.

“What this suggests is that people are very much concerned about the safety of our roads and are pitching in to help us document the need for a better state response, but it does not suggest that these people are actually running into traffic to take photos,” he said. “Quite the opposite. And yet the DOT has the audacity to blame the newspaper and the public for exposing their lack of effort.”

Transportation grants: Oneida County zilch

Meanwhile, this week the administration of Gov. Tony Evers announced awards for $75 million in local transportation grants enacted in the last state budget, and Oneida County was one of only six counties in the state where no entity or program received an award.

Oneida County and various towns within the county had made applications totaling approximately $14.2 million.

In fact, three of the six counties not receiving funding were located in northern Wisconsin: Iron, Oneida, and Florence counties. Vilas County received only one award of $750,000 for Pleasure Island Road in the city of Eagle River.

In addition, many of the awards handed out by the Evers administration weren’t for local roads, as was the original intention, but for non-road projects such as pedestrian and bike trails.

Evers created the grant program, officially called the Multimodal Local Supplement Program, or MLS, through vetoes in the last budget. Republicans in the Legislature had originally allocated $90 million for local road repair, but the governor slashed the funding allocation by $15 million and then expanded the scope to include a broad range of projects, some not connected at all to road repair and maintenance.

Assembly speaker Robin Vos criticized Evers on that point after the awards were announced.

“Gov. Evers is shortchanging our local roads,” Vos said. “ …It’s disappointing that 100% of the money isn’t going to local roads as intended. Instead, millions of dollars are being diverted to bike paths and buses with fewer dollars available to help crumbling roads.”

Among the non-road awards, the village of Cassville in Grant County received $635,376 for a bike/pedestrian trail, Jack Oak Road Trail. The city of Milwaukee received $201,000 for Port South Shore Cruise Dock, while Ozaukee County received $668,493 for the Ozaukee Interurban Trail.

Milwaukee County’s bus system was awarded $1 million, and the village of Williams Bay in Walworth County received $300,000 for the Theatre Road Trail, a bike/pedestrian trail.

Another 23 projects, or 15% of the total, were described as multi-modal, or projects that include bike/pedestrian trail work, mass transit, harbor, or rail projects as well as road work. 

All totaled, 22% of the awards, or 34, went neither to counties nor towns but to cities and villages. Looked at another way, almost 25% of the money, or $18.5 million, went neither to counties or towns but to cities and villages.

Other projects appeared to serve various special interests rather than more public rural roadways.

For example, the city of La Crosse received $1 million of the $75 million total to improve a roadway through an industrial park serving Kwik Trip corporate headquarters. The project will only encompass streets between Kwik Trip Way and another street, and part of the money will be used for bike and pedestrian usage of the roadways.

While some northern Wisconsin counties were on the short-end of the stick, that wasn’t true in northwest Wisconsin. A stretch of counties in northwest Wisconsin represented by Democrat Sen. Janet Bewley and including the cities of Ashland and Bayfield, received more than 10 percent of the awards.

Nearly $7.5 million dollars of the allotted $75 million went to 16 projects across seven counties in Bewley’s state senate district, her office reported.

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.

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