Lack of signs at Milton bypass creating confusion

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Neil Johnson
Monday, September 30, 2013

MILTON—When vacationer Lorayne Fugate drives north from Crystal Lake, Ill., to her summer cottage at Blackhawk Campground, she makes a concerted effort to avoid the new Highway 26 bypass in Milton.

She will take County M south of Milton over to Milton-Harmony Townline Road, cutting past Parkview Drive and then head straight west to South John Paul Road.

Fugate no longer sees Milton's east side downtown business district—the former main drag before the Highway 26 bypass opened a month ago—unless she has a specific reason to go there.

She said part of the problem is that, for the moment, there is hardly any directional signage around the bypass, and she's not interested in figuring out how to navigate it to get into downtown Milton.

“I'll do whatever it takes to avoid getting on that thing (the bypass). It's too confusing. Too much. I've found like five great ways to get around it,” Fugate said.

Fugate was eying baby potatoes at a farm market stand in the parking lot of Milton West Elementary School on Madison Avenue. She has been coming to the stand for years, and doesn't need directions to reach it.

She just takes a totally different route through Milton to get there now—and her route basically sidesteps every business she might have stopped at prior to the Highway 26 bypass opening. 

It's a month into the bypass being open and Milton business owners and city officials say they're hearing stories similar to Fugate's from lots of motorists.

The bypass was meant to divert about 16,000 vehicles a day east of the city, in part to remove heavy truck traffic from Milton's downtown. That has caused a dearth of traffic on the east side, which city officials expected.

But what's disconcerting for business owners on the east side is that even local traffic is struggling to find its way in and out of Milton from the bypass.

Business owners say they have heard local motorists on the bypass sthat they are missing Milton entirely because of confusion over what direction to go at the new Highway 26/Highway 59 interchange, while others, includingFugate, say they are changing their daily routes to avoid the bypass.

Either way, it has spelled traffic pattern changes for businesses in the heart of Milton, and businesses are noticing it.

Jason Cowley, who owns Milton Piggly Wiggly, said he has had local customers, vacationers and commuters between Fort Atkinson and Janesville say they have had a tough time figuring out how to get to his grocery store, which is at 727 S. Janesville Street.

The bypass hasn't put a big dent in his customer base, which is primarily local, but he said it has hurt sales to people from Janesville or Fort Atkinson who would normally stop by on their work commute.

It's ironic, considering the grocery store is just north of where Highway 59 links to Janesville Street, straight west of the bypass.

“Unfortunately, the new bypass doesn't do a great job of directing people into Milton. There's nothing there to do it,” Cowley said. People (who) go north-south on the Highway 26 bypass don't realize they've gotten to the Milton exit.”

The most common complaint Cowley has heard? People coming from the south who want to get off the bypass to get to Milton are accidentally passing the interchange at Highway 59.

By the time the motorists realize it, they have gone all the way to County N a few miles north of Milton, where the bypass links back in with Highway 26. In order to get back to Milton, they'd have to retrace their steps four miles.

One complication: The Highway 26/Highway 59 interchange east of town, now one of the main entrances into downtown Milton, still doesn't have directional signs at the exits or its three roundabouts to point motorists into Milton.

The interchange has a series of road signs with arrows pointing to Highway 59 and Highway 26. That doesn't help motorists who haven't seen the new, reconfigured entrances and exits to Milton, which essentially has included shutting off Janesville Street to through traffic from the north and south.

City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said last week that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of putting in directional signs at the interchange, won't place signs to Milton there for at least another 4 to 6 weeks, according to an email from a DOT contractor.

Schuetz said the DOT until recently was working through protocol to decide the size of the signs and where to place them, but they have been ordered.

Schuetz said the city is now looking into the other traffic pattern issue: local commuters changing their routes to avoid the bypass or find a more convenient way to and from work.

He said the city plans to launch a traffic study in October to learn which streets in Milton are seeing heavier traffic with the bypass and its main arterial roads coming fully open in coming weeks.

“People are creatures of habit, and we're trying to learn how their driving habits may be changing with the bypass,” Schuetz said.

He said the city's ad hoc sign committee will review the traffic study, which could take four to six months, to develop a plan to place directional signs around the city that officials hope will funnel drivers to the city's east and west business districts.

Now, some businesses such as Piggly Wiggly, have resorted to placing plastic directional signs along streets they know are seeing heavier traffic.

Meanwhile, the sign committee planning a Milton welcome sign at the south end of town Highway 26 splits off to the bypass, although Cowley, who is a member of the committee said discussion of the sign is still in the “community branding” phase. He said the sign could be in place early next year.

Schuetz said while the city's traffic study rolls out, the city likely will place some signs where traffic has obviously increased.

The Milton Police Department and the Rock County Sheriff's Office already has reported Parkview Drive and John Paul Road—the two main south entrances to Milton outside the bypass—as having significant increases in local and commuter traffic since the bypass opened.

Casey's General Store, a gas station and convenience mart on John Paul Road on the city's west side, is seeing the increased traffic manifest itself. 

Casey's clerk Gail Williams said gas and food sales at the store have increased significantly since the bypass opened.

“It's kind of weird, but how can you complain? We're getting new people who are now coming in every day,” Williams said. “They say we're their gas station now, just because they're trying to do whatever to avoid that bypass.”

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