Road limit compromise in Wisconsin leaves few happy.
In Wisconsin legal parlance, they’re called "implements of husbandry." Farmers call them tractors, tillage equipment, planters, sprayers, hay choppers and wagons, and combines.
But after new legislation was passed on road limits this spring, they also could become "implements of frustration."
The reason: New legislation actually increases gross weight limits 15% to 23,000 per axle, or 92,000 lb. total if tractor/implement combinations reach specific front-to-rear axle lengths. But that weight often doesn’t come close to recognizing the scale of modern farm equipment. A fully loaded combine might exceed the limit; a triple-axle manure tanker certainly does.
"For years, there was a misunderstanding that farm equipment was exempt from road limits," says Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF). "That’s not true. Farm equipment was never exempt from weight limits."
It all came to a head in 2010. Local, township officials in central Wisconsin were worried that the large tankers were tearing up local roads, and they called on law enforcement to stop and weigh farm equipment. Subsequently, a manure tanker in Marathon County was stopped, weighed and cited.
All you-know-what broke loose. Farmer advocates, such as WFBF and the state Dairy Business Association (DBA), rushed to the Wisconsin Legislature for relief. What resulted was a 33-page bill signed into law this past April that everyone acknowledges is a compromise.
Even so, the law is still too complex and isn’t understood by farmers, local government officials or even law enforcement, says Laurie Fischer, DBA’s director of dairy policy. "The bill itself references seven other state statutes," she says. "We’ve had three attorneys in the same room, and even they couldn’t agree on what some provisions mean."
The kicker is that even the 92,000 lb. weight limit isn’t all that much when you hook-up a 3-axle, 7,400 gallon manure tanker to a tractor powerful enough to pull it. Fully loaded, the tractor and tanker could weigh more than 125,000 lb.
In tests conducted by the University of Wisconsin, such a tractor-tanker combination came in at 51,700 lb. empty. And because the tractor and tanker measured just 40’ from front axle to rear, the load limit it could legally carry was 84,000.
And that meant the tanker could only legally carry 3,200 gallons, assuming manure weighs 10 lb./gal. In other words, to not exceed the load limit, the tanker could be filled to less than 45% of its capacity. That, in turn, would double the number of trips and time required to move the same volume of manure compared to full loads.
The law does provide local units of government the right to issue permits that would allow the weight limits to be exceeded. But farmers, custom harvesters and manure haulers will have to get a permit for each tractor/implement combo they’re wishing to use. Plus, they’ll need to get a permit from each unit of government whose roads they travel.
For a large farm operating equipment on a state road, in two counties and three townships, that would mean they need to obtain six permits for each combination of equipment each year.
Farmers and custom operators view that as a regulatory nightmare. But it boils down to the fact that Wisconsin is a "local control" state, meaning laws should be enforced as close to the people as possible.
Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, puts it simply: "We don’t want the state or counties issuing permits for town roads that we are responsible for maintaining."
Wisconsin has about 62,000 miles of roads in its 1,257 townships, which averages out to about 50 miles each. Each township board will now have to decide whether they will give blanket exemptions, offer no permits or issue permits and under what circumstances. The law prohibits governing entities from charging fees for the permits.
In fairness, townships only have limited budgets to maintain roads, and they’re ability to raise more is extremely limited, if not capped, in the current no-new-taxes environment.
The average township has about $300,000 in annual spending authority for road maintenance, says Stadelman. Rebuilding a township road will cost $150,000 to $200,000 per mile. That means the average township in Wisconsin can re-build less than two of its 50 miles of roads per year, even if the entire road budget goes to reconstruction.
That’s hardly adequate, since roads need frequent maintenance. Under normal use and an 80,000 lb. road limit, they need to be totally reconstructed every 35 to 40 years in Wisconsin’s harsh, freeze/thaw climate, says Stadelman.
If you exceed the 80,000 lb. limit by 20%, road life drops in half. Exceed it by 30%, it drops to perhaps 12 years and exceed it by 40%, it drops to less than 10.
Full-enforcement of the law goes into effect January 15, 2015. This fall, state law enforcement only has the authority to issue warnings to over-weight implement violators, other than manure tankers.
Over-weight tankers can be fined 15¢/lb. on over-weights for the first offense and 18¢/lb. on second and later offenses. So a tanker that is 16,000 lb. over-weight faces fines of $2,400 to $2,880.
DBA plans to go back to the Legislature next session to seek fixes, says Fischer. More funding for local roads also must be found, she says. If Wisconsin is to compete both nationally and globally, its infrastructure must be modernized.
WFBF’s Zimmerman also says the law is far from perfect. But it does offer some relief. "At least now, farmers will be able to get equipment out to the field without loading it on a low boy to stay legal," he says.