Much of Highway 33 in eastern Columbia County will become a de facto construction zone next spring, as 90 wind turbines start to rise into the skyline.
Before the We Energies turbines stand about 400 feet from ground to the highest blade tip, they’ll take the form of components, moving into the county on trucks and hoisted by cranes, all of which will be much larger than are commonly seen in rural Columbia County.
The logistics of conveying that oversized material and equipment, and safety concerns for turbine builders who will be working in or near highway right-of-way, prompted the Columbia County Highway Safety Committee on Friday to consider ways to keep the wind farm construction accident-free.
Michael Strader of We Energies said there have been no injuries to workers who have been working since last spring to build the foundations and driveways and lay conduit to serve the 90 wind turbines that will comprise Glacier Hills Energy Park, located on leased farmland spanning about 17,300 acres in the towns of Scott and Randolph.
However, he said, there have been plenty of close calls, including drivers speeding past the construction areas, disregarding flaggers and driving too close to the workers. Some of the passers-by, in the early days of construction, shouted derogatory things about the wind farm, Strader said.
Highway safety committee chairman Doug Jarzynski, a Columbia County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, said Highway 33, along which much of the construction takes place, is a heavily traveled road on which traffic tends to exceed 60 mph, even though the posted speed limit is 55 mph.
That’s why the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office has, from time to time, stepped up patrols in the area to control speed, Jarzynski said. The sheriff’s office will continue to do this as much as possible, he said, but he noted that the department is understaffed.
Speed control will be only one safety-related concern when, in May, the towers and turbines start going up.
According to Strader, trucks that haul in the components for the turbines will need wider intersections in several places to allow for a larger turning radius.
Strader said We Energies will use gravel to widen some intersections, but needs to keep the public from using them.
Angela Adams of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said she would prefer that We Energies use orange barrels, instead of barricades, to keep the public out of widened intersections. That way, she said, the barrels can stay up all the time, except when workers take them down to admit a construction-related vehicle.
The challenge with that, Strader said, is that barrels tend to be either too light to stand up to a stiff wind or too heavy to be moved easily.
Flaggers from We Energies, including escort vehicles, likely will be used for traffic control heavily beginning in mid-May, when crews expect to be working from sunrise to sunset on building the turbines.
Also, the DOT has designated spots on Highway 33, and a few on Highway 73, where signs will be posted to designate a construction zone where trucks will enter and leave frequently.
According to Strader, each tower will be built from four sections, each of which comes separately by trucks that could be up to 150 feet long, necessitating the traffic control from time to time in areas encompassing not only Highway 33, but also Highways 146 and 73, and possibly some surrounding county and town roads.
Tower segments will be trucked from Manitowoc, and blades and related components will arrive by train from Colorado to a site in the town of Courtland, from which they’ll be transported by truck to turbine sites.
Typically, Strader said, the bottom two sections of several towers will be installed, followed by the addition of the top two sections, which require a different crane than the bottom sections. One of the cranes used will be more than 300 feet tall and will travel on rubber tires to lessen damage to roads and farmland.
Plans call for working from sunrise to sundown six days a week, with Sundays off unless work crews need to make up time lost to inclement weather or other factors that can delay their work. Most of the “visible work” of erecting the turbines should start in mid-May and continue through the fall, Strader said.
During construction, there could be as many as 18 trucks a day in the area where turbines are going up, he said.
Jarzynski said it would be possible for deputies enforcing speed limits in the area to write tickets calling for higher fines in work zones if they determine workers were present.
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