Edgerton officials: I-90/39 project could boost downtown traffic, commerce

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Neil Johnson
Friday, April 18, 2014

EDGERTON—When the state Department of Transportation cranks up its lane-expansion project on Interstate 90/39 between Beloit and Madison, traffic in downtown Edgerton could double.

DOT Engineer Derek Potter said the DOT expects 15 percent of travelers on I-90/39 will use either the detour route on Highway 59 or an “alternate route” on Highway 51 to bypass lane closures and bridge and exit work during the Interstate expansion. The project is set to start as early as 2015 and last six years.    

Based on DOT Interstate traffic counts, that means at least 7,000 extra vehicles a day will take the Highway 59 detour or the Highway 51 alternate. The routes intersect in downtown Edgerton, and the intersection already sees about 7,200 vehicles a day, according to traffic counts.

At a time when communities such as Milton are struggling with low traffic flow, the prospect is a godsend for Edgerton.

Mayor Chris Lund says he wants to start talks with Edgerton's business community to take advantage of the extra traffic.

“This is at least a five-year Interstate project with (intermittent) closures and detours that lead into downtown Edgerton,” Lund said. “Picture who travels on the Interstate. The commuters, the families who head up north for vacations. Those are potential return travelers who could make downtown a regular stop. Think of what that could mean for businesses.”

The DOT has designated a route north from Janesville on Highway 14 to Highway 51 as an “alternate” for travelers during the duration of the central section of the I/90-39  project.

Work along the Interstate at Newville is tentatively slated to start in fall 2015 in tandem with the I-90/39 expansion project along the whole central corridor, DOT officials have said.

Potter said in an email that the Highway51 route would not be a full detour, but it would be an option for drivers to take at times when lane work causes heavy congestion on the Interstate.

Similarly, the Interstate will remain open during bridge reconstruction at Newville, but Highway 59 will serve as a temporary detour for closures during reconstruction of the Highway 59 exit at the Interstate, Potter said.

Lund said that makes a boost in traffic downtown a sure thing, not just a theory.

“Allegedly, the Interstate won't ever get shut down completely, but you know what the project means. When you've got heavy traffic and lane closures, it could be lot of excess flow. People want to get off to avoid those closures.”

He said business owners, particularly of gas stations along Highway 51 downtown,  likely already are aware of the sudden influx in traffic every time a crash on the Interstate shuts down lanes. During those crashes, he said, the city sees a 10 percent boost in traffic.

The detour would cause a bigger boost and one that would be more constant and sustained over half a decade.

Lund said he wants the city to work with the chamber of commerce and businesses on a marketing and way-finding sign campaign to highlight Edgerton as a place for travelers to stop and shop.

City committees could make tweaks to the sign code, including making sidewalk sandwich boards legal downtown, he said. Now, they aren't allowed, although some businesses use them anyway.

“If there is a main talking point of the Interstate construction project for Edgerton, it's “what can we all do to take advantage of the number of extra people coming in town?'” Lund said.

The detour isn't on the radar of some downtown businesses yet, perhaps because the Interstate project is still at least a year off—or two years, if state DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb's predictions on funding woes for state construction hold true.

Yet, local businesses seemed interested when asked about the prospect of extra traffic downtown, whenever it comes.

A woman who manages Mario's Pizza on Highway 59 two blocks west of Highway 51  beamed when a Gazette reporter told her about the extra traffic coming.

“Really? 7,000 more cars a day? That's exciting!” the manager said.

She said she'd be sure to let her owner in on the tip later in the day.

Lund said he's thinking of weekend traffic in the summer. Add Lake Koshkonong visitors to those passing through for parts farther north, and you've got a glut of tourists who are funneled straight into Edgerton on detour routes.    

“You know, a two-hour drive from Chicago gets you to about Edgerton,” Lund said. “You've got to stretch your legs and eat or get gas or a cup of coffee. Why not direct them into town?”

Lund pointed to a handful of niche businesses downtown, including a doll shop on Main Street and shops on Fulton Street, including a custom furniture maker and a comic book shop.

He said somebody might stop to eat and see an end table for his or her cottage or a comic book to quiet the kid in the backseat.

“People remember the time they stopped. They found this here, had a cup of coffee up the street, ate a burger there. You'll cultivate those people to come back to Edgerton.”

Ilir Banushi, a tavern owner in downtown Edgerton, called the prospect “exciting,” but he said he didn't want to comment too much. Banushi said some downtown businesses are worried what the extra traffic could mean for parking and even competition if the city sees a small business boom.

City council member Matt McIntyre said congestion is a legitimate concern, and the police department has brought up the idea of another stoplight on Main Street to handle extra traffic.

But he's enthusiastic about the idea of a campaign to let rerouted motorists know what the city has to offer.

“I like Chris' thoughts. Ratchet up the marketing, you know? Now's the time to plan. You get the chamber along with the city working with the DOT and landowners along (Highway) 59,” McIntyre said. “Maybe you do some billboards, 'Edgerton's not just the detour. It's the place to be.' It's not just good for Edgerton. It's good for Albion, Newville, the whole area.”

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