A state highway-planning panel on Tuesday recommended building interstate bridges over the Wisconsin River and a stretch of U.S. Highway 51 in Dane County while ending studies of two other projects.
The Transportation Projects Commission, which typically meets once a year to review major road projects, recommended a $146 million project to rebuild bridges that take Interstate 39/90/94 over the Wisconsin River and a $174.1 million reconstruction of U.S. 51 between McFarland and Stoughton in Dane County.
The commission also recommended restarting a dormant study of plans to rebuild the I-39/90 corridor from Madison to the Wisconsin Dells — where truck and car traffic has risen steadily this past year, even despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even as the commission advanced these major highway projects, it unanimously canceled studies of two other projects. As a result, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will stop working on plans for a 6-mile section of Interstate 94 in St. Croix County and an 18-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 12 in Walworth County.
The meeting on Tuesday comes after the commission met last December following a five-year hiatus. The commission recommended no new projects for construction in December.
“Last year, the TPC convened for the first time since 2014, and I am pleased that despite all the challenges 2020 brought, we could reconvene to look deliberately at transportation infrastructure,” WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said in a statement. “Today’s action prioritizes projects to achieve the greatest value of the public’s tax dollars.”
Of the two projects the 14-member projects commission voted to advance on Tuesday, construction on each could start within five years.
Plans for the reconstruction of U.S. Highway 51 between McFarland and Stoughton in Dane County calls for both resurfacing and adding four roundabouts to the roadway rather than widening it into a four-lane highway. The reconstruction alternative would cost about $174.1 million, far less than the more than $350 million it would most likely cost to add lanes.
Jeff Gust, director of WisDOT’s bureau of state highway programs, said the highway’s pavement is in “really bad shape.” Parts of the road also have a crash rate that’s 40% higher than the state average.
The department ultimately decided the roadway could be made safer without being widened.
“We found expansion was not necessary to address some of those pressing safety issues,” he said.
A reconstruction of the roadway would also be less disruptive in the long-run to residents and businesses who live and operate nearby. Without an overhaul, the stretch of U.S. 51 would have to go a small construction project once every year-and-a-half for the next 50 years, Gust said.
As for the I-39/90/94 project in Colombia County, the state is proposing to use $141 million to replace a bridge originally built in 1961 .
Department officials hope to begin construction on the bridge in 2024.
State to study I-39/90 reconstruction
Commission members meanwhile unanimously recommended restarting a study of a proposed reconstruction of a 63-mile stretch of I-39/90 between Madison and the Wisconsin Dells — a hub for tourism and commerce, as well as car crashes.
On 90% of all Sundays during the summer of 2019, that corridor saw at least one crash. Half of the Sundays during that summer also saw so-called secondary crashes — which occur when traffic is stopped or slowed from an initial crash and are likely to result in injury.
The corridor also draws a lot of truck traffic and tourism. About 13,800 semi trucks travel it every day and $116 billion worth of goods are shipped through it. The three counties in the area — Dane, Colombia and Sauk — are home to about 20% of Wisconsin’s yearly tourism spending.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused traffic numbers to dip on many Wisconsin roads, the corridor nonetheless saw a 4% increase in truck traffic and a 1% increase in tourism traffic between September 2019 and September 2020.
“The long-term work-from-home trends are not likely to affect recreational or truck travel,” Gust said.
“We do believe we need to get the study moving so we can look at the options,” Secretary-designee Thompson said. “Hopefully we’ll be coming forward in a couple of years and telling you what we’ve learned from that study.”
WisDOT ending study of two projects
Separately on Tuesday, the projects commission cancelled planned reviews of two roadway projects — one to accommodate once-expected growth near Hudson and another to improve travel between Whitewater and Elkhorn.
WisDOT had initially considered adding two lanes to a a 6-mile section of I-94 near Hudson, bringing the total number of lanes to six, in response to data showing significant year-over-year increases in traffic numbers in the late 1990s and 2000s.
That trend has not continued in recent years, though. WisDOT’s models had initially estimated the corridor would see 70,000 vehicles a day by 2024. But revised models, drawing on actual figures from recent years, now project there will be no significant congestion until 2040.
The agency is also dropping a proposed review of plans to widen U.S. 12 from Whitewater to Elkhorn. The 18-mile stretch of interstate has little congestion and its crash figures are scarcely worse than those for other roadways in the state, Gust said. Instead, the department is planning safety projects, such as the addition of rumble strips,.
“There were competing statewide needs,” Gust said. “We felt this corridor could be maintained with a state highway rehab project” Follow @natebeck9