Ready for a new road

Wuest to retire after 30 years with Lakes Highway District

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Joe Wuest, road supervisor with Lakes Highway District, plans to retire next year after 30 years with the highway district.

Work at a place for 30 years, Joe Wuest says, and it starts to feel like home.

Spend over 10 hours a day there, in fact, and it basically is.

So retiring is a little like leaving the nest.

"It's tough. I basically live at Lakes Highway District," said Wuest, road supervisor at Lakes Highway District who has worked there a collective three decades. "Whatever sporting events I have gone to in the past umpteen years, someone is always coming up, talking about their roads, how their driveways are filled with snow, or 'I need my road graded.' It's certainly going to be different."

Wuest just confirmed his plans to retire around next September, and employees are already being groomed to absorb his endless knowledge about managing the district's 262 miles of road and 38 miles of gravel roadway.

The district won't be the same, said Commissioner Marv Lekstrum.

"He's the face of the highway district," Lekstrum said. "All the rest of us are just part timers who come and go. To many people, Joe is the highway district. It's going to leave a big hole."

Maybe it's hard to understand, but Wuest is going to miss the bureaucracy of road management.

It's about providing the most basic of services for his neighbors, he said, a tangible product that bridges folks to their daily destinations.

"It's been pretty fulfilling," said Wuest, 56. "Just to know you're doing something good, building roads and making them safe."

His days are long.

Really, really long.

"Ten hours long, at least," he estimated.

He runs the day-to-day operations of the highway district, which entails hearing out anyone with transportation concerns, from developers to local citizens.

Wuest is in between constant phone calls and meetings all day, he said. He oversees the minutia that road users never think about and don't want to, like working with utilities to install water and sewer lines, clearing snow from driveways, grading roads, paving gravel roads, filling potholes and everything else folks never notice unless something goes wrong.

He scrounges for money, too, seeking grants and other funding sources to avoid falling back on property tax rolls.

"You can't pick any one thing," Wuest said to describe his job. "It's just a combination of everything that goes into transportation and the road network, to ensure that what the public has paid for, that transportation is protected and preserved and kept safe."

One of his proudest accomplishments, he added, is sprucing up Lancaster Road, an ongoing, multi-phased project that was 10 years in the making.

"On the west side of U.S. 95, it (Lancaster) was pretty much a dirt road. As you have businesses moving out on the airport, you have to make improvements to it," Wuest said. "We've made significant improvements, as far as paving and totally rebuilding where it was not passable before. It's certainly a very nice road today."

Wuest started working at the district immediately after graduating from Coeur d'Alene High School in 1973 - just two years after the district was formed from four smaller districts.

His job was typical academic-break grunt work, he said, like cutting brush and piling sand.

"I was mainly a labor, maintenance person," said Wuest, who was born outside San Antonio, Texas, and moved with his family to Coeur d'Alene as a teenager. "I went to work as a summer job, and I kind of ended up there for a couple of years."

From there he went into active duty in the U.S. Air Force, and then served in the Washington Air National Guard Civil Engineering Squadron for 21 years.

He was self employed as a carpenter for a few years, he said, before the highway district pulled him back in 1983, when the then-road supervisor offered him a job.

Wuest worked his way up gradually, from road foreman to assistant road supervisor.

Both jobs entailed being available 24 hours a day, he remembered, especially during the winter.

"The sheriff called at all hours of the day, morning or night for accidents, or going out for slick conditions," he said. "I basically checked the roads all the time, certainly in the wintertime. I was always de-icing and sanding, snow removal to ensure roads were kept safe and passable."

He was promoted to road supervisor in 1995.

Now it's time for something new, he said.

"Sometimes you decide you want to move on and do other things," he said.

Highway Commissioner Monty Montgomery said district employees have been learning Wuest's job, preparing for the transition.

Someone from within will likely be promoted to replace Wuest, Montgomery said.

"He's worked there for so long, he has information that goes back for years," Montgomery said. "We really rely heavily on was Joe has to say and his recommendations."

Wuest, who is married with three grown sons, enjoys motorcycle riding, hiking, kayaking and volunteering at Children's Village.

Although he will miss highway work, he admitted, it might be nice to take it easy.

"I won't have to think about it all the time, the constant concern or worry that you're trying to help and please everyone," Wuest said. "I think there will be some relief."

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