Paving the Road to Home :: A Marathon County Highway Department Ride-Along

Written by Katie Rosenberg

I met up with Paving Crew Supervisor Russell Graveen one morning in August at the Marathon County Highway Department. I was curious about how the crews had been spending their summer, so Russ agreed to take me out to watch the road-paving team in action.

Once in the shop, I was fitted with a fluorescent-yellow vest and a helmet, and we hopped into Russ’s truck and headed out to the western end of Marathon County.

As we made our way toward Rib Falls, Russ pointed out some of the nearly finished projects that the team had worked on over the summer. And when we reached one of their new roads, I could tell immediately — it was a noticeably super-smooth ride! The road was awaiting shoulders and stripes yet, so the team had pulled up the gravel to the side of the road as a safety precaution.

Russ described to me the mix of County and private workers that come together in projects like that to get the job done:

“All of the laying and grading is done in house. Mixing of the asphalt is put out by bid. The striping — we don’t own any striping equipment — is contracted out. We are very fortunate to have a very large asphalt company in our backyard. Competition keeps everybody’s pencils sharp. The best deal for the taxpayer is a low bid.”

We came to a stop near a culvert and hopped out to get a closer look . . . It was a brand-new replacement for a culvert that had failed. Russ explained that this was a HUGE project:

“I think it’s probably one of the largest drainage structures in the County. It’s a 22-foot culvert.”

Newly constructed culvert; likely the biggest drainage structure in Marathon County.

I admit, I never really thought about culverts when I drove by at 55 miles per hour, but they’re important. Culverts provide a way for water to flow under a road or highway from one side to the other. When road crews show up to build new culverts, they can address any safety concerns as well:

“Currently, by State statute, you can’t have a structure built in the right-of-way. Sometimes people will build what they call ‘headwalls’ in front of their culverts to stop erosion, or they think it looks nice or use them for planters. The reality is if somebody leaves the road and hits that — they stop. A lot of fatalities were caused by those years ago. When we do a new road, we bring them [culverts] up to standard. We address safety aspects and drainage issues. We work with the landowners, because ultimately they own the drainage structures.”

We got back into the truck and headed out to meet the paving crew, who were working their way down County Road S.

As we wound through Rib Falls, Russ reminisced about running through the surrounding western Marathon County fields, yards, and streams as a kid. He wasn’t just nostalgic about the past; it was clear that he’s still deeply invested in Rib Falls. This work allows him to give back to the place that turned him into the person he is today.

Russ pointed out the curbing project that solved some water problems for the town:

“We’re now able to catch a bunch of water that would run — hellbent for glory — straight to the river. We’re now able to channel it and put it into a flume that doesn’t erode. It solves drainage issues for folks like this. You don’t want water running down this hill and through his front door.

 Those buildings have been here forever. It’s an old logging community. Folks that live here still love them. There’s pride in this little community. We work with them and get them the best bang for their money.”

As we got closer to the project site, a steady parade of dump trucks filled with asphalt rumbled past. The left lane was a few inches higher than the right, with freshly laid, acrid-smelling asphalt. The section we were looking at was getting its final layer.

Fresh Asphalt
Freshly laid asphalt in Western Marathon County.

We waved at the driver of a cold roller who was pressing out the imperfections. Several yards ahead, a hot roller compacted the asphalt to make it a dense, sturdy road.

“There is such a thing as over-compacting. That makes a road brittle and crack. You [have to] find that sweet spot. In Wisconsin, they measure that in freeze-thaw cycles; how many times does that happen in a week? The more freeze-thaw cycles, the harder it is on your roads.”

Ahead of the rollers, the paver rig and shuttle buggy ambled down the road. It’s kind of amazing to watch this slow-moving, Rube Goldberg contraption rolling along — steadily pushing past a backdrop of Wisconsin corn fields and dairy farms.

We shot past the crew and parked our truck, waiting for the paver to reach us so we could jump on. I took a step toward the paver and my shoes sank into the soft, warm asphalt that the crews had just laid out.

I learned that the crew members typically work on the rig all day. They have a little bit of shade, but all of the guys had deep tans by this time in August when I did my ride-along.

Katie Rosenberg in the driver’s seat of the paver rig.

There’s not a lot of space for personal items, but they figured out how to fit a mini-grill, a few coolers, and a radio, and they had an American flag mounted on the vehicle.

Standing on top of the rig, I could see the shuttle buggy dropping the warmed asphalt into the paver’s hopper.

“It holds about three loads. It kind of remixes it, puts it into the paver, and it’s beneficial because . . . the trucks don’t contact the paver. If they contact the paver, it affects how they lay it down.”

The technology on the paver automatically grades and slopes, and it senses slope off the horizon. If there are divots in the road, it senses that and will fill them out. Russ says that’s what gives you a good ride.

At about 2 inches thick, the crews can typically pave about 3 miles a day. Russ estimated the crew would use about 4,000 tons of asphalt on this particular day — That’s a big day.

“We have a record that has stood for quite a while in Marathon County. It was the envy of even the private sector, American Asphalt. It was about 16 years ago on Highway KK . . . The plant was close, the road was wide, we had a 5,284-ton day. That’s a single paver. It was a pretty big feat. It was fun to be the envy of the private sector because they have a profit margin. They set the standard pretty high in terms of production and quality. It’s a race. They’re a good measure and a good gauge.”

We hopped off the paver and let the crew get back to their rhythm.

Roller and paver
Paver followed by a hot roller, compacting freshly laid asphalt on County Road S in Marathon County.

Russ had one more stop for us: the asphalt plant.

I could see the smoke puffing above the cornfield in the distance. Marathon County used to own an asphalt plant, but it wasn’t portable and it seemed the private companies were often better equipped.

“Marathon County is 40 miles north and south, 60 miles east and west; it just doesn’t pay. We can’t truck asphalt, and we’ve got a major producer with the latest and greatest technology in their back pocket. It’s not prudent for us [the County] to own an asphalt plant. The taxpayers are definitely not getting their money’s worth out of that.”

I put my helmet on as we pulled up to the asphalt plant.

Dump truck after dump truck stopped under a large funnel that was dropping loads of asphalt into the truck beds. Each would then make a quick stop at the office trailer for a receipt detailing the asphalt recipe in their load.

Truck at Plant
Fresh asphalt dropping into a waiting dump truck at the asphalt plant.

The plant was a maze of conveyor belts, drying drums, funnels, and vats filled with oil to mix with the gravel and sand.

Conveyors and drying drum at the asphalt plant.

After stopping in the first trailer, we made our way to a second trailer. Inside, a woman was testing asphalt samples to make sure it had the right oil and sand content so it would stand up to the beating it would soon take as a Marathon County road.

Asphalt core samples ready to be tested for oil and aggregate content.

The Marathon County Highway Department manages a multi-million–dollar budget that’s funded by local, state, and federal money. The paving program itself comes in at about $7 million a year.

Our local Highway Department maintains over 600 miles of County trunk highways and an additional 874 lane miles of State and Federal highways. 

And they do it well . . .

In fact, last November, the Marathon County Highway Department was the recipient of the 2017 Local Government Asphalt Award for advancing innovation in asphalt pavements. Brandon Strand, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association, commended Marathon County for:

“deciding when to choose thin asphalt overlays, selecting materials, designing the mixes, and ensuring construction and quality control while being good stewards of the environment to get the best roads possible for the taxpayer.”

In 2018, our Highway Department paved 36 miles and is now working on smaller paving projects (like culvert replacements) until the snowy season arrives.

If you’re curious about what a day in the life of a Highway Department crew member during a Wisconsin winter is like, check out “Get a Front-Row Seat to a Snow Plow Ride-Along in Marathon County” and see firsthand what I learned on a 3-hour tour with plow operator Kody Carr during a stretch of his 68-mile route plowing our County roads.


Enjoy the sight and smell of the beautiful fall leaves and new asphalt, folks . . . It’ll be salting and snowplowing season soon!

Katie Rosenberg - County Board Supervisor District No. 1

Katie Rosenberg

Marathon County Board Supervisor |  District 1

Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup.  Email Katie Rosenberg. 

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