Our Views: Get help to Milton merchants now
It's obvious that adding a Highway 26 bypass exit at Janesville Street on Milton's south side is years in the future—if one ever comes.
That's unfortunate. Local leaders and lawmakers in office were napping when state transportation officials drew plans that cut off this direct link to the highway's previous path through Milton's east side.
Dave Vieth, deputy director of the Department of Transportation's Southwest Region for only three months, told people at a Tuesday listening session that planners ruled out that exit during environmental reviews and land purchasing talks. He suggested adding it now is unlikely.
Some business owners and residents haven't given up hope. Two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville and Rep. Andy Jorgensen of Milton, called Tuesday's meeting. Critics were loud and clear. About 35 residents spoke, and a handful pleaded for that exit.
It's understandable why.
“When you cut off that road, you cut off our bloodline,” said Laura Sykora, who owns an east-side beauty salon. “From Janesville, we were kind of the cute little town. Now we're a big problem.”
Sykora said some businesses have lost at least 20 percent of customers since the bypass opened nine months ago.
That should surprise no one. Yet a business losing 20 percent is at risk of closing. Imagine owning that gas station/convenience store and other businesses isolated on the southern tip of Janesville Street as bypass traffic rolls past. Northbound motorists can see these stores but must exit at Highway 59 a mile farther east and double back to reach them.
Cullen, who isn't seeking re-election this fall, sympathizes with concerns. Interviewed Wednesday, he didn't rule out a future exit. Still, he said Milton should focus on what it can do this summer. That is adding signs and promoting a Business 26 route on Janesville Street that starts on the south at the Highway 59 exit and from the north at County N.
It's stupefying that this wasn't planned before the bypass opened.
The hang-up is getting the town of Milton to sign off on the business route, which would push traffic through its 3-mile stretch of Janesville Street, a former state highway that the town owns and will soon be responsible for repairing. The state is paving it with concrete, but the town would prefer lower-cost asphalt. Maintenance understandably concerns town officials, given their limited revenue. It's not like the business route will flood Janesville Street with traffic, however. Only cars and trucks doing business in Milton would use it.
Besides, the town circles the city. These neighbors have many ties. Town residents patronize Milton businesses. It benefits these residents to see those merchants succeed.
City and state officials should work together to appease town concerns. Cullen hinted legislation might keep maintenance under state control, but that couldn't come before 2015.
No, this business route wouldn't be as direct as the one flowing local traffic through Fort Atkinson off Highway 26 north of Milton.
What's done is done, however. Cullen is right. City and town officials, as well as Milton business owners and residents, should focus on the here and now. Help struggling merchants as soon as possible by establishing that Business 26 route. Every day delayed risks a business closing.
Seeking a more direct bypass exit on Milton's south side is a battle best waged in years ahead.