Driving 45 mph on a two-lane rural highway is safer than driving 55 mph on the same road with four lanes, according to a group of residents battling the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
The Highway J Citizens Group in Washington County is headed to federal court in the next two months to argue against WisDOT’s plan to spend an estimated $67 million expanding Highway 164 from two to four lanes.
The group argues WisDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers violated environmental laws in approving the highway expansion. Opponents want to stall the project and buy time to convince WisDOT to set a 45 mph limit on Highway 164 through Washington County, said Jeff Gonyo, steering committee member for the citizens group. The speed limit is now 55 mph.
Reducing the speed limit will create a safer, less-traveled road, Gonyo said. He blamed six Highway 164 traffic-related deaths in the past year on the 55 mph speed limit.
“We want to send the whole thing back to the drawing board,” Gonyo said.
But planning officials said the Highway 164 project is no further than the drawing board.
Kenneth Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said plans only as far as calling for expanding the highway at some point in the next 26 years.
Furthermore, SEWRPC’s Year 2035 Regional Transportation Plan does not even include expanding the highway north of Highway 167 in Washington County, Yunker said.
Daily traffic counts will determine when the expansion is needed, he said. Two-lane highways are usually expanded when daily traffic counts reach 14,000 vehicles, he said. Highway 164 in Washington County carried about 9,000 vehicles per day in 2007, he said.
“The numbers wouldn’t warrant anything in the short term,” Yunker said.
Gonyo said he is suspicious of the long-term plans. WisDOT has federal permission to expand Highway 164 whenever it wants, he said. If WisDOT was not planning to move forward, Gonyo asked, why did it seek permission to expand the highway?
The citizens group wants its federal lawsuit to force WisDOT to return its federal permit to expand the highway and rethink its options, Gonyo said.
Gonyo, who has lived along Highway 164 in the town of Polk since 1965, said a lower speed limit was effective when WisDOT set a 45 mph limit on the highway in 2000 as part of a detour around work on Highway 41.
“It was like night and day,” Gonyo said. “The road got safer.”
WisDOT also paid for a study from Ayres Associates Inc., Waukesha, that recommended lowering the speed limit to 45 mph. But a second study, by Canadian firm Opus International Consultants Inc., concluded the speed limit should increase to 60 mph. WisDOT chose to leave the speed limit at 55 mph over the objections of five state legislators who represent the area.
State Sens. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield; Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend; and state Reps. Patricia Strachota, R-West Bend; Don Pridemore, R-Hartford; and Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, wrote Gov. Jim Doyle on April 9 asking his administration to review lowering the speed limit on Highway 164 to 45 mph.
Pridemore said he had received no response from the governor’s office as of Monday.
“The main point of the letter was to ask him to ask the DOT to look at the six deaths in the last year,” he said.
“The speed limit is one of the key issues in reviewing safety on the road.”