Jefferson County Highway Treatment Now High-Tech

By Steve Sharp -

JEFFERSON —  To quote an old Virginia Slims cigarette ad, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Anyone over the age of 45 visiting the Jefferson County Highway Department’s winter maintenance facility this time of year in 2019 could be forgiven for feeling the urge to recite that crusty advertising slogan to the highway department’s Commissioner Bill Kern.

Kern has pretty much seen it all in terms of wintry challenges since he signed on with the county on May 31, 2005, but the level of technology at which he and his colleagues now work is remarkable. In many cases, it serves as examples to other departments throughout the state.

Kern met with the Daily Times Wednesday, along with departmental Superintendent Sean Heaslip, in the office area of the relatively new — at 5 years old — Jefferson County Highway Department. The massive facility is located on Jefferson’s far southwest side, at the site of what was once Countryside Home. After a brief chat with a busy Kern, Heaslip took the newspaper on an extensive tour of the highway department facility, showing how things have evolved in terms of winter maintenance from the days when the department was housed on Jefferson’s near north side in a dilapidated, eventually dangerous facility, that dated to before WW II.

Heaslip said one of the things highway department employees in Jefferson County say is that their careers offer them variety year-round. In the spring, summer and fall there are highway maintenance projects, as well as work clearing grass and invasive plants from roadsides, along with myriad other tasks. In the winter there is, of course, the need to maintain roads in safe driving condition and address pavement problems that pop up as a result of freezing, thawing and plow damage.

To stay on top of what the department can expect in terms of weather, Heaslip works in what amounts to a mission control nerve center, with multiple computers and five television screens. Another two screens serve an adjacent meeting area. Among these are ones that show road conditions such as snow and ice quantities, right down to specific road temperatures in the county. Heaslip keeps track of time and materials usage on “storm sheets” in his perpetual pursuit of finding that perfect blend of salt, water, calcium chloride and maybe even beet juice -- yes, beet juice -- to put down on county roadways.

“There are road cameras all the way to the Colorado Rockies that I can look at,” he said, noting this helps him track storms every mile of the way as they approach Jefferson County from their typical, westerly direction.

Heaslip also has the ability to conduct live-monitoring, via GPS, of his plow drivers’ truck speeds and he can see many things about a driver’s activities, such as if the plow blade is down on the road surface. Heaslip said if there is ever a citizen complaint about a plow truck driver traveling at excessive speed, he can go into his records and find out if this claim is accurate. Road forecasts, wind speeds and other information is available via the Minnesota company that provides data to the county.

In terms of treating roads in the winter, gone are the days when plows would go out and just dump salt on the roads, hoping for the best. These days, salt application borders on an exact science that takes into account the county’s salt budget, roadway safety needs and the desire of the county to protect the environment’s groundwater, lakes, streams and rivers.

Heaslip said the county now likes to perform “more scraping and less salting” when it is possible. When the temperature gets down to the extreme subzero areas, as it did last week, however, nothing is effective but sand and that just allows for better traction.

“Our goal is to reduce our salt use by 25 percent,” Heaslip said, adding this type of reduction could save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in just one winter. Road salt, which the county obtains from Canada, sells for around $100 a ton in 2018-19. At present, Jefferson County spends about $1.5 million annually on salt for the highways it treats. “Once you put down salt, it’s just gone. Plus the environment is becoming a bigger thing.”

Jefferson County is one of Wisconsin’s pioneers when it comes to the manufacture of salt brine to place on the state and county roadways which it is charged with maintaining.

“We’re doing a lot of brine pilot-stuff,” Heaslip said as he walked with a reporter/photographer to the county’s brine manufacturing facility at the northwest corner of the highway facility campus. “The state is willing to invest in things like this,” he said showing off the county’s massive salt sheds, brine-making equipment and storage tanks.

The brine is usually a mixture of rock salt, water and, when it gets very cold -- below 15 degrees -- a mix of 90 percent brine to 10 percent calcium chloride. According to Heaslip, the brine acts more quickly to get snow and ice off road surfaces because the salt is already partly digested by the water. Jefferson County has found the optimum salt/water mix to be about 23.3 percent salt to a gallon of water.

Brine is made and either stored in huge tanks at the highway department grounds, or pumped into truck tanks for immediate placement on the roads.

Approximately 30,000 gallons of salt/water brine can be manufactured at the highway shop in an eight-hour shift. New highway department satellite facilities at Concord and Lake Mills also have blending stations for brine.

But what about this “beet juice” that is supposedly used on the roads by the highway department?

According to Heaslip, beet juice really is used on the roadways, but not for melting purposes. It is mixed with the salt/water brine, at times, to make it stick to bridge decks during weather-event pretreatments and to allow salt to adhere longer to roadways during certain conditions.

On Tuesday, representatives from 25 counties from around the state visited the Jefferson County Highway Department’s brine-making facility to learn how the process might be beneficial to them.

Heaslip said he enjoys his relatively new job. He has been with the county since 2015, when he left his life in highway contracting on construction projects like the Marquette and Zoo interchanges in Milwaukee for the more predictable and structured workday with the county. He said he has children now and needs more time with the family than his old job provided.

“This is all fun to be a part of,” he said. “Bill Kern is a forwarding thinking commissioner. But he is not afraid to say he does not think some new things will work. He is a good steward of county taxpayer dollars. And the technologies in our business just keep evolving.”