Making one of Iowa's most scenic drives safer

Tree Trimming Pilot (7)The stretch of Iowa 76 north of Marquette is one of the prettiest drives in the state. Bordered by the Mississippi River on the east and a scenic bluff on the west, the road is a popular destination for a weekend drive or as an Iowa vacation destination. Unfortunately this stretch of highway has also become a major maintenance concern for the Iowa Department of Transportation when it comes to the safety of the traveling public. 

The trees on the bluffs in this area can be beautiful, but they can also be a safety hazard when Mother Nature decides to send them tumbling onto the roadway. Between the spring and fall of this year, maintenance staff from the Iowa DOT’s Waukon garage responded to calls for downed trees on a 3-mile stretch of Iowa 76. Most of the down trees could be cleaned up quickly with little traffic disruption, but in two instances the road had to be closed completely, once for about four hours to remove debris.

Tree Trimming Pilot (5)So why do the trees fall? As the trees growing out of the bluff get larger, they become unstable. Heavy rains make the ground very weak because of saturated soil and erosion. That’s when the roots can no longer hold the trees, especially since many on the bluff are growing at strange angles. Also, when the trees are in full bloom, the weight of the leaves and the fact they catch the wind greatly increase the chances of the trees falling onto the roadway. 

How can we make this area safer? To increase the Iowa DOT’s ability to respond, the Waukon maintenance staff, with assistance from the purchasing section, rented a four-wheel drive personnel lift and got to work removing as much unstable vegetation as possible. They had to wait until late in the year because when the trees are in full bloom, the vegetation is so thick crews couldn’t even see what needed to be taken down. For 11 days, maintenance staff from Waukon, Decorah, and Elkader worked together to remove more than 800 trees that posed a danger along a 0.8-mile stretch of Iowa 76. 

The size of the trees taken down ranged from new saplings to trunks as large as 3 feet in diameter. Maintenance workers ran all trees and branches smaller than 10 inches through a chipper and spread the mulch along the bluff. Trees and branches larger than 10 inches were hauled to an Iowa DOT stockpile on the north end of Waukon and made available as firewood to the public on a first–come, first-served basis. According to Highway Maintenance Supervisor Joel Monroe, of the Decorah and Waukon shops, the firewood has been very popular, with approximately 20 dump truck loads of free firewood already claimed.

Tree Trimming Pilot (3)Renting the personnel lift made this operation so much more efficient. “The lift can be driven while the boom is completely extended to 60 feet. There are no outriggers to put down, which makes it much quicker than our high-reach boom trucks at getting down the road,” said Monroe. He added this project would never have been successful if not for the three garages working together.

Monroe says they still have about 2 miles of bluff left they want to address. He plans on continuing down the road if weather allows this winter. If not, they plan to be back at it in the spring, all in an effort to make sure that scenic drive on Iowa 76 is not only beautiful, but safe as well.

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