6/26/2016, Janesville Gazette – Blain Supply employees Tom Yungerman and and Chad Miller had been at a standstill in their company service van about an hour, waiting for construction traffic gridlock on Interstate 90/39 to clear, when it happened.
A semitrailer truck approached from over a hill, apparently oblivious to construction work that had narrowed a section of the northbound lanes of Interstate near Rochelle, Illinois, and had left traffic backed up for hundreds of yards.
Yungerman and Miller had their van’s emergency flashers on. They were among the last vehicles waiting out the gridlock.
That gave them a front-row seat as the speeding semi slammed into a small Honda car carrying a man, a woman and their infant, and flung the car off the road like a leaf.
Then, the semi, which was still traveling at least 50 mph, smashed into Yungerman and Miller’s van. The impact was so great it broke the van’s seatbelt mechanism, and it drove the Blain Supply van hundreds of feet up the highway, setting off a chain-reaction crash that somehow left a few people with only minor injuries.
The crash was a week ago, but Yungerman and Miller, who regularly travel I-90/39 for maintenance and service calls, were still shaken.
“I’m OK. My ribs just hurt whenever I take a real deep breath,” Yungerman told The Gazette.
Yungerman and Miller’s story illustrates the growing anxiety and uncertainty regional trucking distribution industries face when major road construction projects hit funding delays, and the progress of work stalls or stretches out months or in the case of the Interstate expansion project through Janesville potentially years beyond initial project plans.
The specter of lost road time, late deliveries and serious accidents for trucking distributors can only increase the longer major highway projects take to roll out.
In Wisconsin, a structural roads revenue shortfall, if left uncorrected by the Legislature in the next biennial budget, will mean large road construction projects, including the $1.1 billion I-90/39 lane expansion, could face two more years of delays, state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said late last month.
That’s after road borrowing cuts the Legislature wrote into the current budget caused the project to get delayed a full year.
If more delays come, it could mean an end date would be extended from what was an original completion date of 2021 to sometime in 2024, Gottlieb projected in a Wisconsin Department of Transportation budget boil down he presented in a closed-door meeting with business leaders in late May.
The Blain Supply Vice President Gary Hilt only has to look out the windows of Blain Supply’s corporate offices to see the impact of the construction delays.
Hilt’s offices and the major distribution hub and terminal for Blains Farm & Fleet’s retail distribution operations are just east of I-90/39 in Janesville.
“For us and what we’re trying to do every day, which is to deliver goods to our locations on time safely, the impact of highway construction starts right here in town, practically the minute our drivers leave the gates,” Hilt said.
Like many regional companies in Janesville, Blain Supply runs a distribution network that spans multiple states. Blain’s Farm & Fleet operates more than two dozen stores throughout Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, Hilt said.
The terminal in Janesville has bays enough to fit nearly 100 semitrailers, and the company gets 50 truckloads inbound each day.
On a recent weekday, Hilt showed bays that had three-dozen trucks loaded and ready to be sent out to Farm & Fleet locations. All of those trucks will initially get on I-90/39, and they come back to Janesville on the Interstate.
That’s the activity of just one local freight company that plies I-90/39. Statewide, 1.3 million people work in an industry that’s reliant on freight distribution. Overall, Wisconsin industries ship $216 billion in goods annually by truck.
But what kind of impact does a five- or 10-minute traffic delay make for a load of goods bound for a retail store? Is it really that big a deal?
“It’s not the single five-minute delay. It’s the cumulative effect of lots of those delays. If we’re five minutes late, somebody else that’s counting on us (to drop off or pick up goods) is now late. You missed your window, they missed their window,” Hilt said. “And your drivers are out there longer. They’re not home.”
Now, federal rules require over-the-road semitrailer truck drivers to log their drive times electronically, and the maximum drive allowed is 11 hours a day. After that, truckers are required to stop.
“We’ve had delays where a driver just runs out of time. You have to send out another set of people, drivers to get them, and then finish that run. That’s a big disruption in a lot of ways,” Hilt said.
Hilt said Farm & Fleet calculates its deliveries to stores in part based on scheduled sales, and often, those sales are set up by the company months in advance.
When customers have a sales flyer in their hands that shows a sale on a product and shipments of products don’t show up at stores in time, it causes major disruptions up and down the company ranks–from corporate sales to retail sales to the customer, Hilt said.
Miller, the Blain Supply service worker whose van was wrecked in the semi crash last week, said he uses the state Department of Transportation 511 app on his smartphone to plan service trips. The app alerts people with updates when there are detours and crashes on the Interstate.
But it doesn’t speed travel when there’s an accident, construction traffic delays or a detour. And the DOT’s site cannot physically make construction zones safer for drivers.
The impetus for the I-90/39 expansion, or at least the major reason the state and federal transportation officials gave when planning it, was that the Interstate no longer had enough capacity to efficiently and safely move traffic, including truck traffic, between Beloit and Madison.
Single-day state DOT snapshot traffic counts show as many as 50,000 to 55,000 cars a day ply the four-mile stretch of I-90/39 through Janesville’s east side.
Bottlenecks through Janesville are routine, especially when thousands of tourists are driving between Chicago and the Wisconsin Dells.
For those reasons, the state pushed the huge lane expansion project on the Interstate and even planned to boost Janesville’s run from four lanes to eight, with a collector/distributor lane setup to separate truck and through traffic from those getting off at Janesville’s north side exits.
In Wisconsin, much heavy lane work on highway projects is tackled by road crews late at night and overnight, and that’s in part to avoid heavy traffic while crews work.
Blain Supply runs a lot of its routes at night, and the trucks are often carrying cargo back from where they went during the day.
“It’s not some kind of reality where I’m trying to say we’re out there playing bang-’em-up bumper cars on the highways every day. We’ve been awarded because it’s been a long time since we’ve been responsible for a crash,” Hilt said.
“But our people can run into anything in the course of a day. The risk is there. And the longer we put our people out there with these highway projects dragging along, the less safe they are going to be. The more opportunity there is for these accidents.”
Hilt, who has worked as Blain Supply’s chief of loss prevention and risk management for about a year, also is the company’s head of government relations. He has lobbied to the Legislature, pushing for long-term and short-term solutions to funding the Interstate expansion and other projects.
Until a transportation summit in Janesville in late May, Hilt was not aware the state transportation secretary was warning of more delays to the I-90/39 project because of funding problems.
At the summit, Amy Loudenbeck, a Republican state representative from Clinton, told The Gazette lawmakers are now reviewing options for a long-term increase to road revenues, including an increase to the state’s gas tax and driver fees, in part to make sure major road projects don’t face more delays because of funding shortfalls.
But Gov. Scott Walker has already said he won’t OK a gas tax increase for road funding without cuts to taxes elsewhere.
Last summer, while Hilt was writing an email to state House Speaker Robin Vos urging lawmakers to release escrowed state bonds, he heard sirens on I-90/39
“I had to stop writing to find out what was going on. You always wonder. It ended up that a man got killed on the Interstate, right as I was writing that email.”
Hilt keeps a screen saver on his office computer that shows a local media image of a military semi teetering off the Highway 26 bridge over the Interstate after a crash last year.
Hilt’s said his wife was driving near the overpass at the time, and chunks of concrete hit her car.
He and his wife sold the car because it was too much to look at. He said it was too much to see the dents on the car’s hood and to consider the possibilities of what could have happened to a loved one and the truck’s driver if the truck had fallen off the bridge.
Hilt was the only company official among several trucking companies contacted by The Gazette willing to talk about the impacts of road construction on the trucking and distribution industries.
“I don’t know why talking about the roads would make things any worse,” Hilt said. “Roads only get worse by not talking about them.”