By Ethan Giebel
"Wisconsin farmers depend on a sound system of roads," said Jeff Lyon, deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. With larger farm equipment traveling down Wisconsin roads, the Wisconsin DOT along with the DATCP brought together the Implements of Husbandry Study Group in 2011 to look at the impact large agricultural equipment has on public roads.
The IoH Study Group convened more than 20 stakeholder organizations representing farmers, equipment manufacturers, law enforcement, local officials and University of Wisconsin-Extension. Through the study, the group learned about IoH equipment and its usage, capacity of roads, highway safety, available research and the emerging needs of production agriculture.
Together, the study group came up with a set of recommendations that could help to lessen the impact IoH equipment has on public roadways and increase safety. Limits of the width, height and weight of agricultural equipment used on roads were the focus of the IoH study group's recommendations. The work of the IoH study group was shared with the public through a series of town hall meetings in late August and early September. Six town hall meetings were held in total throughout the state with the final meeting held in Belmont on Sept. 4.
"We have had great attendance and participation in all of the meetings," Lyon said at the final town hall meeting in Belmont. Approximately 120 people were at that meeting. More than half of those in the audience were farmers. Others on hand for the meeting included local officials, agribusiness representatives, custom operators, local citizens and implement dealers. The study group was represented at the town hall meeting by a panel of individuals from the DOT, Wisconsin Towns Association, DATCP, and Wisconsin State Patrol. Panelists shared information gathered by the study group as well as the recommendations they came up with.
A Minnesota study was completed over three years with 14 configurations of large farm equipment on a test track to determine the impact that agricultural equipment has on roads. The study was the first of its kind to look at the weight of implements. The IoH Study Group used the findings from the study to determine recommendations for IoH usage on roadways.
Minimizing damage to roads
DOT officials at the meeting pointed out that towns, counties and the state have aging infrastructure that serves a variety of users. Our current road system is designed around commercial vehicle usage and not for the needs of large agricultural equipment, which presents challenges. Many roads do not have enough structural capacity in their subgrade to support excessive loads. Damage is most frequently caused by repetitive traffic with large loads. Driving on the center of the road is one way to prevent such damage.
"There are over 62,000 miles of town roads in Wisconsin," said Richard Stadelman, Wisconsin Towns Association executive director. Roads are not the only structure affected by overweight loads. Bridges and culverts are a major concern. "There are also lots of culverts that haven't been replaced for years that have been impacted by use of heavy equipment. Towns have over 86,000 culverts constructed mostly of concrete or steel." Wisconsin is home to over 14,000 bridges that exceed 20 feet in length. Towns claim over 8,800 of these bridges, the average age of a town bridge is 38 years old.
Weight of implements can cause damage to roads while the length, width and height of IoH can lead to safety issues.
"Not all roads are created equal," said Stadelman. "Although new roads are being put in at 22 feet in width along with a two-foot shoulder, many of our roads are still less than 20 feet wide." In the last five years, 16 fatalities and over $4.4 million in economic loss was caused by crashes involving agricultural equipment."
The IoH study group would like to work with equipment manufacturers in the future for narrower configurations of farm implements.
The DOT wants farmers to be engaged with their local government officials in handling the issue of overweight equipment on town roads. One of the recommendations provided by the IoH Study Group is to have an operational plan where farmers would seek the approval of local authorities each year in order to move equipment that exceeds limitations set by state statutes. Farmers would provide the route they plan to take as well as the frequency of their trips. Another proposal suggests that operators of equipment that exceeds the size or weight limits must be 18 years of age and possess a valid driver's license.
A comment portion at the end of the meeting allowed for attendees to share their thoughts on the IoH Study Group recommendations. About 25 people at the Belmont meeting shared their concerns with the proposed recommendations. Many farmers felt that it would be a challenge to work with local authorities to get permission to use roads.
"I would have to get permits from 30 municipalities," shared one farmer.
Others that would be impacted by this proposed policy are implement dealers and custom operators. Some in the audience felt that more should be done to look into building roads that support more weight rather than restricting the movement of equipment that is vital to Wisconsin's $60 billion agriculture industry.
"Young people are already farming before they enter high school," said a farmer who operates land in Rock and Walworth counties. "I have two boys who are under 16 and already drive this type of equipment on the farm. How will an age limit on operating large machinery impact young people entering farming? We need young people to return to this industry."
During the comment portion of the meeting, panelists from the IoH Study Group suggested that attendees contact their state legislators to let them know how they feel about this issue. Recommendations were finalized on Sept. 12 at a final meeting of the study group after reviewing comments received at the six town hall meetings. These findings will be passed onto the chairs of the Senate and Assembly Committees on Transportation. At that point, it will be up to state legislators as to how they wish to act upon the research provided by the IoH Study Group.
Giebel is a student at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.