Our Views: Milton right in pushing state transportation officials to benefit business

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Gazette reporter Neil Johnson stood several minutes in the middle of Milton's quiet Janesville Street last week, photographing the Milton House museum complex. Had he done that a year ago, he'd have been road kill.

Milton's east-side businesses feel the quiet, too. When the Highway 26 bypass opened in August, it swung thousands of vehicles around rather than through that business district each day.

Many businesses feel isolated. A loss of customers threatens their existence. City Administrator Jerry Schuetz calls the lack of a direct link between the bypass and Janesville Street—formerly Highway 26 through Milton—a design flaw, and he's right.

When Milton officials realized that the design cut off Janesville Street's south end and a previously busy gas station, they approached state transportation officials. They were told construction was too far along for changes.

Adding to the insult, no signs direct bypass traffic onto any “Business 26” route into Milton. Schuetz again is right to note that while business routes point drivers into Fort Atkinson and Jefferson farther north on Highway 26, the same can't be said of Milton.

It's confounding that such signs weren't up when the bypass opened. A logical spot to the north is County N, where signs point motorists east toward Whitewater and west toward Edgerton, but not south into Milton. Absent direct access to the south end of Janesville Street, a “Business 26” route could at least turn northbound motorists off the bypass onto Highway 59 on Milton's far east side. Sure, they might drive past businesses they want to reach, only to double back, but signs directing them would be better than nothing.

If you live or do business in Milton and are frustrated about this, your chance to comment and perhaps make a difference comes Thursday. Mayor Brett Frazier—with the blessing of the city council and Milton Area Chamber of Commerce—has scheduled a listening session to gather input about ways to boost access to Janesville Street. He hopes to take ideas to state officials.

This isn't the only battle tied to commerce that Milton is fighting. City officials also want the state to bend its criteria and allow more access to Highway 59 near the bypass to pave the way for interested developers.

The bypass offers many advantages. It skirts heavy trucks around rather than through that Milton business district. Motorists traveling between Janesville and Fort Atkinson avoid traffic snarls and delays at the railroad crossing on Milton's Janesville Street. Time is money, and the bypass improves transportation for people and businesses, bolstering commerce. But maybe not commerce in Milton—at least not yet.

You could argue that Milton officials should have been more forceful more quickly when businesses started howling that the bypass would cut them off. Sometimes, however, it's difficult to see unintended consequences in plans until pavement is laid. In the minds of state officials, Milton's alarm bells went off too late.

Adding a bypass exit near the south end of Janesville Street would be even more expensive now that the bypass is open. Still, long term, that would be ideal. A thriving business district also has value. It makes Milton more livable and bolsters tax coffers of not just the city and Rock County but the state.

Given that, state officials would be well advised to listen with open minds when Frazier and Milton next come calling.

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