The road signs of spring

Chris Hardie, Journalist

The classic harbingers of spring are the return of the robins, the maple sap run or the first blooms to sprout from the thawing earth.

But sometimes the signs of spring are actual signs of spring – as in the signs posting the seasonal road weight limits.

Climatology speaking, spring came on March 1 with the arrival of meteorological spring – the months of March, April and May. It’s a different approach than the astronomical seasons defined by the two solstices and equinoxes.

Now that you’ve been enriched by that nerdy weather fact, let’s get back to the notion of spring. By one measure – the depth of frost in the ground – it’s been a fairly mild winter. Some parts of Wisconsin – like the southeast – have little or no frost in the ground, while parts of northeast Wisconsin have as much as two feet.

It helped that many parts of the state had an early blanket of snow that insulated the ground. The average frost depth during the height of winter in Wisconsin is 65 inches or even deeper in the far north.

Whatever the frost depth, Mother Nature is hard on the roads, which are susceptible to damage during the freezing and thawing period. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transporation, some state road sections are too weak to withstand even the legal load limit (80,000 pounds) and are restricted with weight limits during most of March and April. Some restrictions on those roads are already in place.

The seasonal bans are more widespread on the county and town roads not designed to handle heavy loads. Based on the roughness and road break-up I have encountered during my travels recently on local roads, I suspect that the road bans will be issued soon.

Wisconsin has 112,362 miles of public roadway, of which 100,609 miles are roads and streets maintained by local municipalities. That’s nearly 90% of the roads that are under the responsibility of our cities, villages, counties and towns to maintain and repair. That includes many bridges – especially in my part of western Wisconsin with its many creeks and hills.

Thanks to an increase in state and federal funding we have more roads and bridges being repaired. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law approved by Congress in November includes $5.5 billion for Wisconsin.

Lord knows the money is needed, as many of the roads are in awful shape. Driving on some of them in my neck of the woods requires an aggressive slalom technique if you want to have any chance of avoiding the potholes – which can appear overnight at this time of the year.

Predicting how long the bans will be enforced is purely weather dependent, but I was told once there is a telltale sign for when they come off, which is when the grass in the ditches next to roads starts to green up.

When you see that green and the signs come down, then you know that spring is really here.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at [email protected].