4/9/2017, Walworth County Today – The stub end of a section of U.S. Highway 12 freeway just north of Elkhorn dies abruptly in gravel, the remnant of a construction project that would have extended U.S. 12 to a point about one-half mile east of County Highway O near Whitewater.
The plan officially was mapped by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation back in 1967.
But it remained in the planning stages for decades, and now that empty section of freeway, barricaded from traffic, is a road going nowhere.
That worries local officials who see the increase in traffic along the current route and would like to have the stalled project revived.
“The U.S. 12 freeway through Walworth County was originally envisioned to be part of a freeway system connecting the Madison and Chicago areas,” Kevin Muhs, deputy director of Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said in an email.
The portion of U.S. 12’s freeway between Genoa City and Elkhorn is complete.
However, much of the rest of the originally planned freeway system remains undone, including a particularly busy stretch linking the cities of Elkhorn and Whitewater, an arterial highway leading to a technology park, a four-year state university, dozens of businesses and plenty of tourist spots.
According to Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the average weekday design capacity of the existing two-lane route that runs between the end of the U.S. 12 freeway to County Highway ES is 14,000 vehicles. In 2006, the number of vehicles already was 13,700.
Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell said WisDOT is planning traffic counts for that stretch of highway this summer when — as in many parts of Walworth County — traffic grows exponentially.
“The summer months, specifically May through September, produce traffic increases with the most pronounced congestion visible Friday (to) Sunday evenings,” Picknell said in an email.
Walworth County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division Capt. Dave Gerber concurs.
“I can tell you that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, in the Elkhorn and Lauderdale Lakes area it’s a nonstop, constant flow of high traffic,” Gerber said.
Andrew Bettinger of the LaGrange General Store and Backyard Bikes, on W6098 U.S. Highway 12 in the town of La Grange, isn’t just concerned about the volume of traffic, but the safety. He estimates he’s seen an accident about once a month near the store, including two cars that have hit the building.
“I keep 911 on speed-dial,” he said.
For decades, he and his father, store owner Mike Bettinger, have rented everything from mountain bikes to skate snow skis to adventurers ready to bike, hike and ski nearby scenic trails.
“This could be an economic corridor for tourism,” Mike Bettinger said about U.S. 12. “The main reason is the Kettle Moraine State Forest, an immensely popular tourist destination for Wisconsin and the Chicago area.
“The amount of traffic is tenfold from 15 years ago and it’s only going to get worse. I don’t have an answer for why it’s taken so long to get something done. There seems to be no urgency.”
Walworth County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell believes the best solution is one that SEWRPC has included in its past jurisdictional highway system plans for Walworth County: a reroute of the existing U.S. 12.
The project would transform the two-lane stretch of U.S. 12 and Wisconsin Highway 67 to a four-lane, divided highway that follows in a northeasterly direction to connect with the Whitewater bypass, avoiding the Lauderdale Lakes area and running through the town of Sugar Creek.
Russell said the project, known as the “Red Line Route,” would cut travel time because the speed limit on four-lane highways in Wisconsin is currently 70 mph, versus the existing 45 mph limit on that stretch. She also believes it would reduce traffic delays, particularly through the lakes area north of Elkhorn, and provide a safer route.
“Businesses (customers and owners) and residents have a very difficult time accessing 12/67,” she said in an email. “Long backups occur at access roads such as county highways ES and A, where there is through-traffic on Highway 12. It’s very hilly, curvy, cuts through busy lake areas and has many subdivisions feeding into it.”
An environmental impact study of the project was approved as part of the state’s 2013-’15 biennial budget. But last July, WisDOT decided to suspend the study, citing a lack of overall need for the project and financial constraints.
“WisDOT has ‘dropped’ — not ‘postponed’ — the environmental impact study, which means that as far as they are concerned, it is never going to occur,” Russell said. “The environmental impact statement could result in the ability to utilize any federal funds for infrastructure improvements as previously promised by President (Donald) Trump.”
Russell is referring to Trump’s promise — made during his first joint address to Congress in January — of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan funded by public-private partnerships.
Last month, the Walworth County Board reviewed and approved a draft resolution that urges elected officials to direct WisDOT to complete U.S. 12’s environmental impact study.
“I am hopeful (the resolution) along with citizen involvement as well as the leadership of our representatives in state government will lead to the environmental impact statement being completed soon,” Russell said. “That is what we expect and deserve, since it has already been legislatively approved.”
Similar resolutions have been copied by other municipalities in the county, including the city of Whitewater.
“The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has some 1,600 students from Illinois,” said Jeffery Knight, president of the Greater Whitewater Committee Inc. and a proponent of the U.S. 12 reroute. “But it is the only four-year state university in Wisconsin without a four-lane access road.
“We get 10,000 people coming to commencement ceremonies, and 7,000 people for football games,” said Jeff Arnold, vice chancellor for administrative affairs at UW-Whitewater. “A lot of our visitors end up coming in on country roads or older, two-lane highways. A four-lane highway would serve the community and the region and be a spur for the campus.”
Mike Pyritz, a region communications manager for WisDOT, said work on U.S. 12 is still slated for 2021, but the project has been “reduced in scope” because of financial constraints from a full reconstruct to what’s known as a “mill and fill” — where crews shave off the top few inches of a roadway and replace it with a new surface.
“There will be a few spot improvements along the route, dedicated turn lanes and such to help keep traffic flowing,” Pyritz said. “One major improvement will be traffic signals at its intersection with County Highway A.”
“That’s a penny-wise and pound-foolish solution,” said Marcia Sahag, LaGrange town supervisor and an advocate of the U.S. 12 reroute. “Right now, it just makes so much more sense to put money in and do the bypass rather than these incremental things. That’s like putting a partial roof on your house rather than put a new roof on.”
Russell isn’t surprised that a long list of road projects and a shortfall in the state transportation budget led to the abandonment of several road projects last year.
“There is no appetite to increase funding of roads in the state Legislature. Gas taxes have not been increased in many years, license fees are low compared to neighboring states like Illinois and we have automobiles that are partially electric and don’t pay gas taxes in proportion to road usage,” she said. “At the same time, road construction costs have increased dramatically. While Walworth County has had some state road widening projects and reconstruction of freeway overpasses, to my knowledge, we have not had any new roads constructed since Interstate Highway 43. Those counties where substantial road construction has occurred have benefited with proportionate economic development.”
“We’re the ugly stepsister,” Sahag said. “People think Walworth County is in the middle, not far enough west to directly impact Madison, not far enough east to directly impact Milwaukee. But we’re in a location where improving transportation would make a big impact.”
“I think it’s just a matter of advocacy,” Knight said. “Sometimes we didn’t rally the troops as much about the need for this project. With the EIS done, developers then have a road map for future development. No one is demanding the road be built immediately.
“But let’s say this Trump infrastructure money comes to pass. None of it can go to a project that’s not already planned. Without the EIS, we’re not there.”