The snowplows are finally silent at the Wadena County Highway Department. And the summer roadwork season is still a month away. Spring may be a slow time as far as road maintenance is concerned, but there are plenty of issues to keep the highway department buzzing.
"From my perspective there's really no downtime," said Wadena County Highway Engineer Joel Ulring. "There's always something to do."
From economic development to public safety, the department plays a crucial role in the life of the county.
Springtime activities such as brush clearing and cleaning ditches keep the guys in the shop busy. And soon construction season will begin. Once the road postings go up around mid-May the department can begin hauling gravel, Ulring said.
"So we'll be graveling the dirt roads and doing some shouldering on the paved ones," he said.
The pavement marking contract will start in June, he said.
The upcoming construction season includes a large federally funded regrading of County State Aid Highway 23. The work will extend from County Road 167 north to CSAH 31 about 3.5 miles, Ulring said. The project should take between two and three months to complete.
A smaller construction project will take place this summer as well. Five miles of CR 104 going west out of Verndale will get a new bituminous overlay, Ulring said. This project should take about a week.
In addition to seasonal projects, the department has long-term priorities, according to Ulring. Reducing the amount of county road mileage, developing 9- and 10-ton routes, replacing deficient bridges and road safety improvements are all important parts of the county's future plans.
The effort to revert county roads to townships is an ongoing challenge, he said. The reversion will be a better use of local money, however. Townships receive $350 per mile in state gas tax funding for their road maintenance.
"It's just an educational process," he said. ""[We're] trying to spend the local money as wisely as we can."
Another priority is the development of routes for heavy load traffic.
The use of heavy trucks is a statewide issue that also affects Wadena County, Ulring said.
"Farmers 15, 20 years ago didn't use semis," he said. "A lot of them do now."
The timber industry has been authorized to haul heavier loads now, he said. And it's just a matter of time before that is transferred to other industries.
Tractors are also much bigger and heavier than they used to be, he said.
"Everything is changing," Ulring said. "We try to meet it as best we can."
Economic development in Wadena County is something the highway department is very interested in, Ulring said. Roads play an important role in that. A year ago the department worked with J.D. Offutt Company to provide them with 10-ton access to their warehouse north of Staples, he said.
Roads aren't the only issue when it comes to heavy loads. Even if the county increases the number of 9- and 10-ton routes it takes a lot longer to bring up the load-bearing capacity of bridges, Ulring said.
Ulring doesn't know yet how big an increase Wadena County will see in state aid funding after the passage of the state transportation bill, he said. It doesn't sound like there will be hard numbers until later this summer or the end of fall.
Some numbers have been floating around, but their accuracy is being questioned, Ulring said.
"I've heard they're somewhat inflated," he said.
The county was hoping for some additional funds for bridge replacement, but that wasn't in the bill, he said. The bill allocated $50 million for bridges, but $25 million went to the Lafayette Bridge in Hennepin County. And there are other projects around the state that are waiting to be funded, he said. So the remaining $25 million is already committed.
In Wadena County there are three bridges the highway department would like to replace with large concrete culverts and one bridge that needs to be replaced with a new bridge, Ulring said. The three smaller bridges are located on Hay Creek on County Roads 130, 164 and 118. The bridge the county wants to replace with a bridge is located on the Partridge River north of Aldrich on CSAH 2 three quarters of a mile west of CSAH 26.
The bridges are considered deficient, Ulring said, but certainly are not in danger of collapse. They are just at an age when they are eligible for funding, he said. But the county just doesn't have the open dollars to replace them.
"We'll just keep proceeding with the plans and have it ready and waiting for when funding becomes available," he said.
While Wadena County awaits news on its state funding, it is using federal funding for safety improvements in the county.
The federal government is pushing for safety improvements on rural highways and roads, he said.
"There's significantly more deaths on the rural roads than on the state highways and interstates," he said.
Last year the county received two federal grants for safety improvements. One is for improved intersection lighting. The other grant will be used to remove the Y intersection on CSAH 23 in Verndale.
The highway department has also been working internally to improve the safety of roads in the county, Ulring said. Last year the county installed extensive signing, delineators and chevrons along curves.
"We evaluate every year what needs to be done," he said.
The federal government also emphasizes keeping road way striping and reflectivities up due to the aging population.
"It's important to keep those things more visible," Ulring said.
Federal funds, public safety money, state bonding and the new transportation bill combine to form the department's overall budget, Ulring said.
"We've just got all these little pots of money that kind of filter in," he said.
The overall budget is around $5 million, with 1.5 million coming from local taxes, he said. The total budget all depends on revenue, of course. The budget includes projects the department is applying to be funded. If a project doesn't get funding then it's eliminated from the budget, he said.
"So the budget just kind of balances itself," Ulring said. "If you don't get the funding you don't get the work."
Nearly two years as the highway engineer in Wadena County has provided some good challenges for him, Ulring said. He has focused on improving the efficiency of the department he oversees.
"[We're] trying as best we can to spend that money efficiently," he said. "It's basically all tax payer money. We all need to be conscientious of how that's spent."
Wadena County Highway Department facts
The highway department oversees approximately 225 miles of county state aid highways. These roads are eligible for state aid funds.
The highway department oversees approximately 225 miles of county roads. These roads are completely supported by local levy dollars.
There are approximately 87 bridges in Wadena County. The definition of a bridge includes culverts that span more than 10 feet.
The highway department spends $100,000 a year on fuel. Diesel comprises around $75,000 of the cost with regular unleaded gasoline using the other $25,000.
There are 19 full-time positions at the highway department. Three to four additional employees are hired in the summer to do roadside mowing and construction.