By Julian Emerson
Each time his loaded semi truck approaches one of the small, narrow bridges that are commononplance across west-central Wisconsin, Craig Myhre swallows hard and hopes for the best.
When Myhre’s semi trailer is fully loaded, it and his truck weigh a combined 80,000 pounds, or 40 tons. While most bridges he encounters on trips hauling grain, fertilizer and other products can handle such loads, he periodically comes across those with posted weight limits of 30 tons or less.
Myhre said he avoids crossing bridges with lower limits when he can. But at times doing so isn’t possible, he said, given the size of his rig and the narrow, winding roads he often traverses.
“Sometimes you just can’t turn around, and with these long trailers it isn’t always practical to back up for long distances either,” Myhre said during a recent morning at his farm south of Osseo near the Trempealeau/Jackson county line. “You’re kind of stuck. You just go ahead and hope the bridge holds up.”
Myhre, a member of the Jackson-Trempealeau Farmers Union, isn’t alone in confronting a growing number of bridges with weight restrictions during the past decade. According to a 2018 study, his home county of Treampealeau had 18 bridges transportation officials considered structurally deficient, the highest total in any of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. That same study showed 75% of bridges in the state considered unsafe were in the state’s western part, thanks to its hilly terrain and many waterways.
Those bridges were among 979 in Wisconsin considered in poor condition, along with 1,949 miles of highway in need of fixing, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Other truck drivers and farmers who traverse Trempealeau County and other parts of western Wisconsin said they sometimes are confronted by bridges with weight restrictions less than their loaded vehicles weigh. Sometimes they are able to turn around and take a safer, roundabout route to their destination. But oftentimes that simply isn’t possible, they said.
Myhre is all too familiar with the rough road conditions that have become increasingly prevalent in recent years as Wisconsin municipalities struggle to maintain them. He grows corn, soybeans and hay on his farm south of Osseo and nearby rented land. He also is a commercial hauler and a former rural mail carrier. He travels the roads of the region so often he can recite many of them from memory.
“We’ve definitely got some rough roads around here,” Myhre said. “When my truck isn’t loaded down, the rides over some of these stretches can get pretty bumpy.”
Older, outdated bridges have more weight limits, which pose challenges to crop haulers as well as milk truck drivers who have to find alternate routes and farmers struggling to get to their fields, he said.
On his farm west of Myhre’s place, Kevin Nelson used to be boxed in by bad bridges. Four bridges surrounding his property had weight restrictions of just 15 tons, meaning he had to add about 15 miles to each trip hauling grain from his farm to Winona, Minnesota.
Nelson had two options to get his grain to the Winona site. Both included steep hills his loaded-down truck struggled to climb.
“It was a problem for a time there, that’s for sure,” Nelson said while taking a break from mowing hay during a recent afternoon. “Everywhere you looked, it seemed like there was another bridge with a weight limit.”
In the past couple years, all four of those bridges have been fixed, and Nelson credits county officials with making road and bridge repairs a priority. Failing to do so was hindering the local economy and making travel for heavy vehicles “a real challenge,” he said. Such extra travel now would be especially challenging, he said, given record-high gas prices this summer.
“We still have roads and bridges that need fixing,” Nelson said, “but things are a lot better than they were.”
That’s due in large part to the Trempealeau County Board significantly boosting the amount of money it spends on road and bridge repairs, from $1 million to $4.95 million annually. After reinspection, the 18 bridges considered to be in substandard shape were subsequently reduced to nine, and increased funding and a special emphasis on fixing bridges means those deficient structures will have been repaired or replaced by the end of this year, Trempealeau County Highway Commissioner Al Rinka said. The county is upgrading five bridges this summer.
“We had a lot of bridges in rough condition, and we’ve made fixing them a priority,” Rinka said. “The farmers and other people living here needed that to happen.”
Funding for roads and bridges in Wisconsin has lagged for needed repairs for years, and poor road conditions across the state have prompted increased discussion during the past decade. The Republican-led state Legislature upped road repair money to cities, counties, villages and towns as part of the 2021-23 state budget, but local government officials say more action is required to meet the need.
Myhre, Nelson, Rinka and others in Trempealeau County hope more bridges and roads can be repaired in upcoming years with money made available by the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, or Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) approved by Congress in November. The historic infrastructure spending proposed by President Joe Biden’s administration includes $5.5 billion for Wisconsin to invest in roads and bridges.
“These rural areas, they’ve been left out for too long,” Myhre said about roads and other infrastructure needs. “It’s time that we get our share of this money.”
Many Repairs Needed
Four years ago, when he was named Trempealeau County highway commissioner, Rinka knew he was taking on a big job.
For several decades county officials had failed to authorize enough funding to keep up with needed maintenance for highways and bridges, meaning the condition of roadways fell further and further behind.
Upon taking over the highway department, Rinka assessed the county’s roads needs. They were extreme. In addition to the high number of bridges requiring fixing, many county highways were in similarly rough shape, with some considered nearly failed. Many roads had far outlived their intended 30-year lifespan, with some going almost a half century before replacement.
Today those faulty bridges are mostly repaired, and the condition of roads is much improved because of a cash infusion to repair them. For several decades before Rinka’s arrival, the county generally paid to repair only one to three miles of roadway per year, a figure that has increased to 15 miles each of the past two years.
In addition, the county faced road funding challenges because a large state expenditure for a major road project south of Arcadia more than a decade ago meant fewer state dollars available to pay for county roads since then.
“It took a lot of work to convince (board supervisors) to commit to paying more for roads and bridges,” Rinka said, noting that state-imposed spending caps limit how much the county can spend on staff and programs. “But they realized our roads were getting bad enough that we had to do something.”
Highway commissioners across Wisconsin expressed similar struggles finding enough funding to pay to maintain roads and bridges. Having a county highway network in disrepair means not only bumpy rides but hinders attracting more residents and businesses to rural regions that for years have been losing people and companies to more populated areas.
Northern Wisconsin is home to fewer roads than other parts of the state, and when major roadways are closed because of poor conditions, it creates especially long alternate travel routes for residents. More people are moving to the northern part of the state because they can work remotely, Ashland County Highway Commissioner Matt Erickson said. Accommodating them will require more and better roads.
“Good roads and bridges are key to promoting economic development,” Erickson said. “You have to have the infrastructure to support that, and that requires money.”
Like Trempealeau County, Pierce County was home to a significant number of substandard bridges in recent years. Those bridges have been replaced/repaired, thanks in large part to $15 million in borrowed money.
“The bonds were key to getting our bridges caught up,” Pierce County Highway Commissioner Chad Johnson said. “There is no way we would have been able to do that with the standard state programs plus our (tax) levy.”
Seeking Help From Infrastructure Bill
County highway commissioners across Wisconsin said the $5.5 billion Wisconsin received as part of that bipartisan legislation is welcome funding that will stretch existing dollars to fix roads and bridges.
“Certainly the BIL is going to help our roads, and especially our bridge system in the state, which was sorely in need of a capital increase,” St. Croix County Highway Commissioner Robbie Krejci said.
Johnson said he is hopeful of receiving BIL dollars to help with needed road repairs in Pierce County. He applied for two projects totaling 13 miles in the first round of funding announced in early June, but like most projects submitted across the state, did not receive dollars for them. Of 306 submittals, only 40 were granted, a sign of significant transportation funding needs across the state, transportation officials said. Johnson resubmitted those same projects for the next round of BIL funding expected to be announced in July.
BIL money would be especially helpful, Johnson said, in the face of fast-rising road construction costs that have climbed at least 30% across the state from a year ago.
In Trempealeau County, Rinka said he submitted three road projects for the second round of BIL funding. Every project he can get funded that way “means other projects on our list that we can get done that we have to delay now because we don’t have the money for them,” he said.
However, Rinka isn’t assuming he will receive BIL dollars, given the competitive nature of those expenditures. In the meantime, even amid fast-climbing materials costs, another 12 miles of highway roads and a couple of bridges will be repaired this summer. Rinka is busy preparing his highways budget for next year and hopes the County Board will maintain its nearly $5 million annual commitment to roads and bridges fixes as it considers an expensive courthouse remodeling project.
“Coming up with the money to maintain our roads and bridges isn’t easy,” Rinka said. “Roads are always deteriorating, and keeping up with them is nearly impossible. But we’re doing our best to put a big dent in the problem, to try to catch up and then maintain what we have.”
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This is part of a series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project.