Highway 26 bypass opens, Milton quiets down

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Neil Johnson
Friday, August 23, 2013

MILTON—The last time it was this quiet on Milton's east side there were horses and buggies in the picture.

Friday, the Milton Highway 26 bypass officially opened to traffic. At the Milton House on the city's east side along Highway 26 (officially called Janesville Street now that the bypass is open) it was eerily silent.

Dozens of semitrailer trucks an hour have rumbled past the Milton House for years, shaking the limestone grout walls of the 169 year-old former inn. Now they're gone.

The big trucks, along with almost all through traffic—16,000 vehicles a day, the state Department of Transportation estimates—will now skirt a mile or so east around the city on the new bypass.

“You look out, and there seriously are no cars,” Kayla Christianson, a tour guide at the Milton House said Friday. “It's really, really weird.”

Indeed. Heading north out of Milton on Janesville Street on Friday afternoon, a Gazette reporter saw only three southbound cars on the old stretch of Highway 26 between Milton and County N, near the north end of the bypass.

Along the old stretch of road, it was all cornfields, wind and blue skies; no semitrailer trucks.

In Milton, traffic along Janesville Street was almost nil. Yet at about the same time Aug. 16--one week before the bypass opening--a traffic check by The Gazette on the same stretch of Janesville Street tallied over a dozen cars each minute and 12 semitrailer trucks in a 10-minute time span.

It's a boon for anyone who wants a quiet, traffic-free downtown, particularly in Milton, where a train crossing that splits the city can cause 20-minute delays and half-mile traffic backups to the north and south.

The new, four-lane bypass draws traffic around the city at 55 mph, crossing above two sets of railroad lines. It links with an interchange at County N and roundabout exits at Highway 59, allowing traffic to get off to go to Milton, Whitewater and Edgerton.

The $44 million bypass is part of a larger $325 million lane expansion of Highway 26 between Watertown and Janesville that's designed to pull traffic out of local thoroughfares and spur economic and industrial growth along the outskirts of cities along Highway 26.

All told, it took a Gazette reporter about six minutes to travel the bypass north to south, compared to six minutes, 40 seconds it took to travel the stretch of road the bypass replaces.

The road was smooth as glass, and despite forced lane changes where the DOT continues work to link all lanes of the bypass into Highway 26 heading south to Janesville, the route was easy to negotiate.

It's the areas surrounding the bypass that are more complicated, particularly for local businesses and the customers trying to reach them.

On the city's south end, the DOT has put out barricades which block traffic from entering or exiting Milton from the south on Janesville Street—or, as it may soon be called, old Highway 26.

The DOT plans to cut off Janesville Street north of where the bypass links back into Highway 26 heading south to Janesville.

Nearby, at the Milton Mobile Travel Center gas station at Arthur Drive, a side street that intersects what soon will be the south dead end of Janesville Street, drivers turned around at another set of barricades that blocked them from accessing the gas station.

Workers at the gas station indicated the barricades are temporary while the DOT finishes linking in all lanes of the bypass. But the gas station is like many other businesses on Milton's east side that no longer are on the beaten path.

The station is literally cut off from traffic on the bypass because it's just north of where the bypass veers around the city, and there is no direct way to get off the bypass and reach the gas station, which also has a McDonald's restaurant.

Earlier in the day, a Gazette reporter saw two McDonald's managers placing signs along residential subdivisions south of Arthur Drive. They said they were hoping to direct traffic to the gas station and McDonald's.

A clerk at the gas station who said he didn't want to identify himself watched car after car turn around at the barricades blocking Arthur Drive.

The clerk said customer traffic at the gas station immediately dropped “60 to 70 percent” when the bypass opened Friday morning. He added that he's being told trucks that deliver supplies to the gas station are now taking side roads into Milton and are driving through residential subdivisions on the east side in an attempt to skirt the bypass area.

Milton resident Michael Godding lives on Evergreen Drive, about a half mile west of Janesville Street. He says he could always hear heavy truck traffic coming right through downtown. He's glad the city will be rid of most of its traffic and noise.

“All day, all night you'd hear those trucks' air brakes going off as they'd come right through town. I'm glad that'll be gone,” Godding said.

Godding said he cringes when he thinks of all the close calls with big trucks along Janesville Street, which runs past a large park, an elementary school and a children's splash pad.

“You worry about all the kids in the area with that kind of traffic,” he said. “Now it's gone.”

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