Coming soon to Milton: A highway bypass

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Neil Johnson
Monday, August 12, 2013

MILTON—When the Highway 26 bypass opens to traffic later this month, about 16,000 vehicles a day will make the traffic equivalent of a giant, Vince Lombardi-style Packers sweep around Milton.

Ready or not, the big shift cometh. And soon.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation project spokeswoman Teri Schopp said in a public forum Monday that construction of the bypass is running on schedule and will open to traffic on Friday, Aug. 23.

Schopp said Monday that despite years of media coverage, and the availability of public information on the layout and altered traffic flow on other Highway 26 bypasses completed earlier in Watertown, Jefferson and Fort Atkinson, it's been common for residents, businesses and commuters to have uncertainty about driving on a new road. 

Schopp said although people know a big route change is coming, the rubber doesn't hit the road until—well—the rubber actually hits the road.

Schopp said she expects an initial uptick in questions from jittery drivers in days to come.

“There is definitely a learning curve with every new roadway, particularly bypasses. They're offset from the existing roadway, and it is unfamiliar,” Schopp said.

“It'll be natural for people to be wondering and to be contacting us on questions like, “How do I navigate this? How do I get to work? How am I going to get to the grocery store?'” Schopp said. “It's a new thing. It'll take a couple of times driving it before they get familiar and comfortable with it.”

For those just tuning in, the four-lane Milton bypass will funnel through-traffic north and southbound traffic on Highway 26 about 1.5 miles east around Milton, over Highway 59 and its signature roundabouts before tapering back west and rejoining existing Highway 26 lanes north and south of Milton.

And in case you're wondering how you'll get to work now—or if you're wanting on or off the bypass to go west to Milton or east to Whitewater—you'll have to get used to using the two roundabouts located on Highway 59 on either side of the new Highway 26 overpass.

The bottom line: Once the bypass is open it will clear traffic out of the current stretch of Highway 26 that now runs through the gut of Milton's east-side downtown.

Once the traffic is gone, the old stretch of 26 will officially become Janesville Street, and will cease to be the main thoroughfare for motorists traveling between Janesville and Fort Atkinson.

DOT officials say the bypass will serve to rid downtown Milton of heavy semitrailer truck traffic, and will ease frequent commuter traffic snarls at a railroad crossing between High Street and Madison Avenue.

The $44-million bypass project is in tandem with a lane expansion that will turn Highway 26 from two lanes to four between Milton and Fort Atkinson. It's one part of a multi-phase, $325-million overhaul of the highway that spans from Janesville to Watertown. The whole project includes bypasses at Watertown, Jefferson and Fort Atkinson.

Not only will the Milton bypass eliminate most through-traffic, its linkage to existing lanes of Highway 26 is structured so access from side roads is limited. In fact, the only interchanges for Highway 26 other than the Highway 59 roundabouts will be at Harmony Townhall Road just south of Milton and County N north of Milton.

Although the bypass officially opens next week, traffic going south will have a temporary lane crossover as crews finish a half-mile stretch between where it links with the existing Highway 26 near Arthur Drive.

The four-lane bypass will narrow to two lanes north of Milton as crews work to complete a lane expansion of Highway 26 between Milton and Fort Atkinson. That work is being done now but won't be completed until November 2014, Schopp said.

As for access to the future Parker YMCA, which is located east of Highway 26 on the corner of Parkview Drive and Milton-Harmony Townline Road, people won't have direct access from Highway 26, Drivers will, however, be able to reach the Y from Harmony Townline Road or Highway 59, officials said.

Access to local businesses and a dearth of traffic in a post-bypass Milton is a factor that has dominated economic development planning in the city for the past five years.

City staff and the Milton City Council have grappled with how to redefine and remarket the city's east-side downtown, which has a small business district, a multi-use park and several niche cottage industries.

The city now is in the midst of sealing a nearly 200-acre land-annexation deal along the nexus of the Highway 26 bypass and Highway 59. That deal would add land to Milton's business park and its main tax increment financing district for use in potential commercial developments along the bypass area, officials say.

City Administrator Jerry Schuetz has lived and breathed the reality of the Highway 26 bypass and what it means for traffic and business. But amid planning in the face of the bypass, he admits he hadn't given a lot of thought to what it will be like actually driving on it.

At least, not until he took a tour of the bypass this summer, traveling on what was then a gravel roadbed. Then he realized how big a change the bypass is.

“I'll tell you, it's really surprising how far it takes you around the city. We guess it will take about a year for people to totally normalize to it,” he said.

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