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‘In poor condition and getting worse’

February 07, 2020 by Brian Jopek

It’s no secret many of Wisconsin’s roads — in some cases, major highways — are in some sad shape. 
The situation makes itself more pronounced over the course of the winter months, as deterioration of areas that were repaired months earlier quickly buckle under the pressure of conditions during the winter. 
Of course, what can be a brutal Wisconsin winter, with its sub zero temperatures at times, prohibits county highway personnel from being out long enough to do patching and fill potholes. 
In fact, during a Dec. 17 Minocqua Town Board meeting where the road situation was discussed at length, Wisconsin Department of Transportation maintenance coordinator Randy Frisch said cold patch and mastic aren’t viable options during cold weather months. 
Even with good weather, he told the town board, mastic — a self-adhesive asphalt binder containing selected aggregate — would last at the most a couple of months. 

‘Not our jurisdiction’
On Jan. 31, Minocqua town clerk Roben Haggart, referring to U.S. Highway 51, told The Lakeland Times the town office gets several calls every day from people “complaining about the highway.”
“We just tell them it’s not our jurisdiction,” Haggart said. 
Hwy. 51 in the Lakeland area is maintained, as all stretches of U.S. and state highway are by individual counties, by Oneida and Vilas counties per agreements each county has with the Wisconsin DOT. 
Like Haggart, Minocqua town chairman Mark Hartzheim hears plenty about roads “on the street” as he talks to people. 
“I don’t get a lot of calls,” he said. “Certainly, it’s discussed when you run into people. In the public, it’s one of the first things that’s mentioned and everybody acknowledges it when it comes up.”
Hartzheim understands the poor condition of portions of U.S. and state highways in the Lakeland area isn’t anything unique.
And he isn’t saying there’s never been anything done at all; late last year, for example, the final portion of what ended up being a nearly seven-year project to get Hwy. 51 in Minocqua, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae reconstructed was completed. 
At the same time, however, portions of the first part of that multi-year Hwy. 51 reconstruction, which actually began in the spring of 2013 near Minocqua’s Torpy Park and proceeded north, are starting to crumble. 
Also in 2013, roughly six miles of State Highway 70 west of Morgan Road in Minocqua to the Oneida/Vilas county line received new layers of asphalt. There was also some bridgework and the installation of new culverts and guard rails along with passing lanes at Camp Pinemere Road and Squirrel Lake Road.
There are, now nearly six years and a few winters later, some pretty good-sized potholes on that stretch of Hwy. 70. 
“There are some places in the state that have good roads,” Hartzheim said. “Overall, though, the roads over the entire state are in poor condition and getting worse. Even if we started paying attention to them, my concern, and a lot of other people’s concern, is we’re so far behind the curve, what’s it gonna take to get it caught up?”
He said he doesn’t understand why the condition of roads and road construction isn’t an “absolute top priority” for the legislature.
“As a state, shouldn’t we have a higher standard for road conditions than this?” Hartzheim asked. “My question for the legislature is ‘Why are you good with this? Why are you telling us to live with this?’ There must be reasons behind the scenes why people refuse to take what I think would be obvious needed action.” 

Legislative action
Attempts to get a comment from Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers regarding roads were unsuccessful. 
“We will refer you to Senator Tom Tiffany in regards to what the State Legislature is doing,” Evers’ deputy press secretary, Cara Henney, wrote in a Jan. 31 email to The Times.
Tiffany agrees with Hartzheim, “there are real needs out there for roads.”
He said that’s why he voted for a state budget providing a $320 million increase into state highway rehabilitation. 
“The most in at least a decade,” Tiffany said. “I’m a firm believer that the number one priority of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation should be the repair and maintenance of existing roads.”
He said when it comes to local roads, he supported $66 million in general transportation aids. 
“I also voted for a $90 million supplement for local road aids,” Tiffany said. “Unfortunately, Governor Evers cut this supplement by $15 million with his veto pen.”
He said the mileage rate was increased by 10% — from $2,389 per mile to $2,628 per mile for 2020 and thereafter. 
“With the boost in our state surplus, I believe that we should return some of those dollars back to taxpayers,” Tiffany said. “In addition, I also support putting additional dollars back into local roads.”
Sections of road like Hwy. 70 in Minocqua from Morgan Road to the Hwy. 51 intersection — with several potholes and deterioration — would be the type of project the $320 million Tiffany mentioned could be used for. 

DOT plans
While there wasn’t anyone from the DOT willing to go on the record, the agency did send a list of some maintenance projects for not only Minocqua and Woodruff, but for Hwy. 70 east toward St. Germain. 
In addition, an email from Minocqua public works director Mark Pertile to members of the Minocqua Town Board and shared with The Times indicates there are plans from the DOT for project and maintenance items on Hwy. 51 and Hwy. 70, including work on that stretch of Hwy. 70 from Morgan Road to the Hwy. 51 intersection. 
That’s scheduled for completion in June 2021. 
“This will only be a mill and overlay,” Pertile wrote and added Hwy. 51 from Manitou Park to the Hwy. 51 bridge in Minocqua is scheduled for completion by August 2022. 
However, Pertile said there is nothing in the program for a project on Hwy. 51 from Manitou Park Drive south to Sylvan Shores Road.
“This section is deteriorating extremely fast,” he wrote the town board. “I will be following up with WisDOT and hopefully have more information on this section for the board in the near future.”
Regarding maintenance, Pertile said the DOT has informed him Vilas County “is now assisting Oneida with maintenance activities in order to stay ahead of the fast deterioration of the highways.”

Maintenance challenges
Hartzheim said the town has been told by Oneida County Hwy. 51 south of town is a priority. 
“When weather permits, they’re supposed to be filling some of those holes,” he said. 
Oneida County highway commissioner Bruce Stefonek said that’s the case. 
“The DOT gives us a work list and they prioritize the work list,” he said. “Hwy. 51 south of Minocqua is definitely a priority.”
According to an email from the DOT, the intent is to have Oneida County crews focus on patching potholes between the Lake Minocqua Bridge and Lake Katherine Bridge in all lanes.
For Hwy. 47, pothole repair remains on the work list in both Oneida and Vilas Counties with the section from Kildeer Road to the Vilas County line scheduled to be worked on first.
Stefonek said a problem has been the mastic, which actually holds an average of two weeks. 
When it comes up, he said, it brings chunks of the pavement with it, making the potholes even larger. 
“It’s not bonding,” Stefonek said. “The blacktop is ... shot.”
Stefonek said the DOT — which he made clear has its “hands tied” locally — has been collecting data related to repairs attempted with the mastic material. 
“They’re taking it to the top in Madison to get more funding,” he said. “We need to show them the numbers on what’s being spent for nothing, basically. If we’re not going to get funding for reconstruction, let’s at least fix these holes the right way.”
That “right way” Stefonek mentioned includes using a better type of cold patch and different method for installation.
“Instead of just throwing it in the holes and then moving on, we’re preparing the hole, drying it out, heating it up so there’s a bond to the existing blacktop and then we are compacting it with hopes it last much longer than the mastic,” he said. “It’s costing about the same, but we’re making twice as much progress.”
In the meantime, Hartzheim continues to wonder when there might be something along the lines of reconstruction — not just an overlay — for Hwy. 70 west from the Hwy. 51 intersection to Morgan Road planned along with reconstruction for Hwy. 51 south of Minocqua. 
“All you have to do is drive down Hwy. 70 and Hwy. 51 and wonder if your tires or suspension are gonna survive,” he said “I don’t ever remember roads being in as poor a shape as they are.”
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected].

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