Quick growth in northwest Wisconsin is overwhelming Interstate 94 with traffic congestion that threatens development and irks highway commissioners.
The I-94 corridor between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities connects bedroom communities in Wisconsin to jobs in Minnesota. But the corridor has no public transit links.
Tim Ramberg, St. Croix County highway commissioner, said the Twin Cities have made northwest Wisconsin the fastest-growing region in the state, and the population has swamped the transportation system.
“It’s a problem for people who want to come here and live out in God’s country,” he said, “because of the hassle factor it takes to get here.”
Five northwest Wisconsin counties this month banded together to form the Wisconsin I-94 Corridor Commission, which will study ways to use road expansion and commuter transit to solve the congestion problem, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association Inc. The counties — St. Croix, Barron, Dunn, Chippewa and Eau Claire — copied communities along the I-94 corridor in Minnesota, which joined and received federal money for planning, he said.
Fedderly and county highway commissioners in early March are going to Washington, D.C., to request $1 million to pay for planning that would complement the work in Minnesota. Fedderly said simple road and interstate expansions are not enough to solve the problem, and transit systems such as commuter buses and trains deserve consideration.
“We’ve expanded capacity there already,” Fedderly said of the highway system, “and you are somewhat limited in terms of additional capacity expansion, and this would be some kind of alternative to alleviate some of the congestion issues.”
Given the region’s rapid growth, it is time to take a cue from Milwaukee and Madison and start planning regionally, said Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County highway commissioner.
“I wouldn’t say they’re similar to what you see in Milwaukee,” he said of the traffic jams, “but they’re certainly significant.”
Reducing the traffic load on I-94 is important to attracting people and businesses from Minnesota, Stelzner said. For instance, he said, Chippewa County’s Lake Wissota Business Park, which Stelzner is in charge of filling with tenants, has 140 acres of available land. Leasing that land will depend in part on clearing the path to the Twin Cities, he said.
The traffic also affects county highway departments. Ramberg said the congestion causes crashes that pull highway maintenance crews away from road projects to perform emergency response.
“It affects the scheduling of our crew,” Ramberg said, “because we have to stop, drop and roll if there is an issue.”
Ramberg said he expects the teamwork among the counties to improve the region’s chances of getting federal money for highway and transit projects. But until that happens, he said, the aggravation will continue for drivers.
“When you go out there and look at it,” he said, “you can see it, and you can see the frustration on their faces, too, in the way they are driving.”