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Merrimac man leads charge to get State Highway 78 fixed

March 1, 2018 GMT

Nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition urging Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Dave Ross to repair Highway 78.

Organized by Merrimac resident Dean Voeks, the petition says the condition of State Highway 78 between Merrimac and Prairie du Sac has deteriorated to near undriveable conditions and urges the state to prioritize repair work on it.

After Voeks started the petition in early February, a town hall meeting was held Feb. 7 in Merrimac to discuss the condition of the highway. Residents voiced their frustration that a highway reconstruction project that cost taxpayers $9 million in 2009 had deteriorated so drastically.

Representatives from the Wisconsin DOT, and the offices of state Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Rep. Dave Considine attended the meeting.

“It’s in horrendous condition for road only nine years old,” Voeks said. “We spent $9 million to take out sharp curves and make the driving a little easier. But it was poorly constructed. Someone messed up.”

While driving the stretch of highway, it is nearly impossible to maintain the posted speed in many places due to large buckling visible in the pavement.

Town of Prairie du Sac resident Okla Yanke stopped into Lakeside Country Store in Merrimac to sign Voek’s petition Feb. 21. Yanke lives near Highway 78 and travels it frequently. An avid jogger, she said she regularly finds car parts and bolts strewn along the shoulder.

Voeks said each winter since the highway’s construction nearly a decade ago the condition of the pavement gets worse.

“It rattles the car and bounces the people in it,” Voeks said. “Under freezing conditions, it is a safety hazard. There’s no way the state of Wisconsin should accept the quality of construction on Highway 78.”

Sauk Prairie Ambulance director Kevin Weber said his crews travel the stretch of highway on average two to three times a week, with most calls in the winter months coming from Devil’s Head Ski Resort.

“It’s a very uncomfortable ride for our patients,” Weber said. “And it’s sure not good for the equipment.”

Weber said while EMTs typically stabilize a patient on site, when a situation arises where they have to work on a patient while on Highway 78, it is “impossible” to get an IV in a patient. “We would have to pull over,” Weber said.

John Steiner of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said the next work slated for Highway 78 is a mill and overlay — a pavement preservation technique in which the top two inches of asphalt are removed and a new surface is laid. Given the poor condition of the road, Steiner said the DOT has not determined its best course of action.

“We have not yet scoped the project,” Steiner said. “We still have to determine what the real improvement plan needs to be for the roadway. We are in the process of that right now.”

On Feb. 21, a DOT road crew was taking soil samples from beneath the Highway 78 asphalt in front of the Northridge Business Park in Prairie du Sac. A crew worker said the soil samples would be sent to a lab and tested to help determine a probable cause for the road’s rapid deterioration.

The highway’s condition even was fodder for Erpenbach during a listening session Feb. 24 at the Ruth Culver Community Library in Prairie du Sac.

Apologizing for running late, Erpenbach told the crowd, “Highway 78 is the worst. I thought it was 188 and part of 69 down by New Glarus and Belleville and 113, but my god.”

Erpenbach told attendees he and Rep. Considine sent a letter to the DOT secretary as well as to Gov. Walker. “Funding is an issue, obviously,” Erpenbach said. “But honestly, I don’t even know how part of that road can be open.”

Some in the construction industry who were at the Merrimac meeting in early February suggested to Voeks one cause could be water trapped under the pavement, which then expands as it freezes, causing the pavement to buckle.

However, Steiner said the DOT has yet to confirm that. In the meantime, residents requested signs be put alongside the highway cautioning drivers about the bumpy ride they have ahead of them. DOT crews responded by placing several “ROUGH ROAD” signs along Highway 78, and Steiner said they will install more once they get the green light from the Diggers Hotline.

“They were so unaware of the problem, they hadn’t even thought of doing that,” Voeks said. “I told them, how can you come out here and speak to this and not know?”