Walworth County Government Today: Slow down and look out when snowplows are at work

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Dave Bretl | January 9, 2017

My hope for a few more weeks of autumn ended Dec. 4 when we received our first snowfall of the season. I was reminded that it takes some drivers a snowstorm or two before they get into winter driving mode. I passed a couple of cars that had driven off I-43 in Waukesha County that afternoon. I was surprised because while conditions merited reduced speeds, the road was in pretty good shape. I am a coward when it comes to winter driving, but I felt in control at 55 mph. I apparently wasn't alone in my observations of the traffic that day, because on Monday I received a request from our public works department to run a column about winter driving.

Our drivers asked that I pass along two tips — the first pertains to following snowplows and the second involves passing them.

State law prohibits following a snowplow closer than 200 feet on roads with a posted speed limit of more than 35 mph. There are some good reasons for this. Our drivers need to occasionally slow down, stop and sometimes back up. They don't have a chance to see a car that is following too closely. Our drivers are spreading tons of salt on the roadway, in some places up to 300 pounds per mile. It goes without saying that you wouldn't want all of that salt deposited on the hood of your car.

The second issue pertains to passing.  While you may not see it at nighttime or when visibility is poor, our trucks are equipped with wing blades that typically extend beyond the width of the truck. These blades can weigh as much as a compact car. Motorists who don't take this into account can strike the blade, putting themselves and our drivers at great risk.

One part of the winter season that I don't look forward to is reviewing accident claims involving our plows. I am amazed at the skill of our crews given the treacherous conditions in which they work and the size of the equipment they operate. A common theme in these accidents is a lack of patience by motorists. While reducing your speed can add a few minutes to your trip, hitting a snowplow will add significantly more time to your trip and can have life-and-death consequences.

In Wisconsin, road maintenance is the responsibility of one of five jurisdictions. Cities, villages, towns, counties and the state each “own” roads and are responsible for keeping them plowed. I am sometimes asked why county trucks maintain state roads like the interstate. The state actually has an agreement with Walworth County, and most other counties, known as a routine maintenance agreement, to maintain its highways. Each county performing state work is reimbursed by the Department of Transportation.

This arrangement was started nearly 90 years ago and has historically made sense for both parties. The state doesn't have to hire thousands of highway workers and purchase a fleet of snowplows. Counties, on the other hand, have been able to use revenues from the state work to offset some of the costs of purchasing equipment. The system is fairly unique, because only a few other states follow the model.

As a result of our agreement with Wisconsin, Walworth County workers plow nearly 700 lane miles of state highways in addition to 451 lane miles of county roads. These miles are divided into 23 sections, or beats. Each beat is the responsibility of a public works employee. For the past several years, the county has hired a number of seasonal workers to focus on the expressways and supplement the work done by our regular crews.

The relationship between the state and county government occasionally has become strained as the state has come to grips with budget issues. In 2010, for example, the state cut and then froze the amount of money it allocated to pay for its highway work. In some cases, this led to the state ordering less maintenance work in summer.  That situation posed several problems. By taking advantage of our workforce during the winter, but pulling back funding for non-winter projects, the county was forced to increase its share of funding to keep our workers employed year-round. While we do employ seasonal workers to supplement our crews in the winter, it is neither cost-effective nor efficient to do this on a large scale.

Our relationship with the state has improved in recent years. The state now makes performance-based maintenance projects available to counties, of which our county has taken advantage.

For your safety, and that of our crews, take your time when driving this winter. Remember that warmer weather is just seven or eight short months away.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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