By Julian Emerson Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Specialist
BLANCHARDVILLE – Dairy breakfasts are a revered summertime tradition across Wisconsin, an annual celebration and affirmation of the rural way of life in a state known as “America’s Dairyland.”
But this year the popular dairy breakfast in Lafayette County, in Wisconsin’s southwest corner, was canceled after organizers decided that a spate of road and bridge repairs would make it difficult for people to even get to the June 11 event.
With numerous roads being resurfaced or replaced and seven bridges throughout the county needing upgrades, many of the 3,000 people who typically attend the annual dairy breakfast simply wouldn’t have been able to travel to it, at least not without significant delays, organizers said.
“It is with considerable regret that this decision was made to not have a dairy breakfast event for this year,” a post on the Lafayette County Dairy Promotion Committee’s Facebook page reads. “This was due largely in part to the extensive road construction and road closures taking place throughout the county over the summer and the impact it would likely have on attendance.”
Mike Berg is plenty familiar with the county’s roads, having lived all 64 years of his life on his farm just east of Blanchardville. He traverses county roads frequently in his job as a truck driver, and knows well the pride many county residents have in their agricultural way of life.
“Canceling that event was a big deal around here,” Berg said. “There was just so much construction at once.”
Having so many road and bridge projects underway simultaneously is both positive and negative, said Kriss Marion, who operates Circle M Market Farm Bed & Breakfast just outside of Blanchardville, a village of about 800 situated on the border of Lafayette and Iowa counties. The cancellation of the dairy breakfast, one of the county’s more popular events, was a sign of the relatively rough state of the county’s transportation network, she said.
But having so much work at once also is evidence that much-needed repairs are occurring, thanks to federal funding, said Marion, who is a Lafayette County Board supervisor.
“It’s good to see a lot of this work finally happening,” Marion said. “I mean, when you put things off for decades, in the end you are going to have a lot of emergencies all at once.”
Road and bridge repairs have been needed for years, Marion said. But those fixes happened at a slow pace – or often didn’t happen at all – because the county lacked enough money to keep up. Lafayette County Highway Commissioner Dan Rielly said the county has done an adequate job maintaining its roads amid funding that lags needed repairs.
“It can be challenging at times to determine which roads and bridges to repair first, and which to repair at a later time, due to available funds,” he said.
However, that is changing, thanks to federal dollars made available to the county, most notably through the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) approved by Congress in November. BIL provides $1 trillion for infrastructure investment across the U.S., including about $5.5 billion for roads and bridges in Wisconsin. Those dollars, awarded state by state on a competitive basis, can be spent for projects through 2026. Lafayette County is seeking BIL funding for two road projects, Rielly said.
Road and bridge construction will help not only provide smoother rides but will benefit the region’s economy as well, Marion said. Transportation repairs mean jobs, and other infrastructure spending is having a positive impact, she said. For example, federal money is being used to lay fiber that expands much-needed high-speed internet connections in the decidedly rural region where she lives, where broadband has been lacking.
County highway commissioners statewide are applying for a piece of Wisconsin’s share of BIL funding. The funding process, overseen by the state, is competitive, and the need is large, given applications received during the first round of BIL funding for Wisconsin roadways announced in June. Of the 306 requests received, just 40 were granted. Even more project requests were solicited for the second round of disbursements, state officials said.
Highway commissioners across Wisconsin said they’re thankful for BIL funding they received during the first round of expenditures. Joe Langeberg, La Crosse County highway commissioner, said his county received nearly $400,000 in BIL dollars for county highway repairs, and he plans to apply for additional funds from that program.
“The need for replacing bridges or reconditioning roads has been consistent,” Langeberg said, noting the county has fallen behind the nine miles of roads it must repair each year to maintain current road ratings.
‘A Ton of Construction Happening’
As he traversed Lafayette County’s winding roads on a recent evening, Berg noted sections badly in need of repairs. Berg said he hopes the county can obtain BIL dollars and other funding to boost its road repair schedule.
Berg said improved roads would lead to a better economy for Lafayette County’s small towns. He recalls when Blanchardville had several grocery stores, a couple of car dealerships and numerous businesses, most of which have disappeared in the past few decades.
“Industry wants good roads for their trucks. And some of our roads really aren’t in good shape,” Berg said as he drove over one particularly rough, curvy stretch of Highway 78. “A lot of people would like to live in this area. But the roads are a problem.”
Berg, Marion and others are optimistic that BIL funding, on top of county and state expenditures, will lead to significant infrastructure improvements in Lafayette County and elsewhere in Wisconsin. While the unusually high amount of road and bridge construction this summer has caused traffic delays, it is a sign of much-needed improvements, they said.
“There is a ton of construction happening, and more planned, and that is a good thing,” Marion said. “The dollars are coming in from the federal government, and we are seeing evidence in every direction of the significant investment.”
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This article is part of an ongoing series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project.