DOT suspends highway bypass plan indefinitely
When Michael Everhart of rural Janesville read the April 8 story in The Gazette announcing a meeting to discuss the bypass, he viewed it as a call to arms. Two farms in his family, one owned by his grandmother, the other by his father, would lose land depending on the proposed bypass route.
“That’s when I decided to get involved,” said Everhart, who heads up Neighbors United, a grassroots organization opposing the bypass. “They have been talking about this for a couple of years, but when I read that story, I knew it was time to act.”
Neighbors United circulated a petition, put up yard signs along Highway 14 and attended public meetings. Their efforts were rewarded when DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb announced the department would “indefinitely” suspend development of the environmental impact statement for the project.
Everhart, a project engineer with Pieper Power, set up the organization’s social media content, including a Facebook page.
Doug Rebout, whose family has several farms in the area, would have seen one farm cut in half with the loss of about 35 acres.
“I think the DOT always wanted to tie this to the I-90/39 expansion, and when they saw that we caught wind of it, they backed down,” he said.
The DOT decision effectively puts the bypass project on the back burner until at least 2019, according to DOT estimates.
At issue for Neighbors United was whether the bypass would become part of the Interstate 90/39 project. Such inclusion in the project would allow the bypass to proceed without what’s called enumeration as a major highway project. The department decided the bypass needed to be reviewed, thereby placing it on a long waiting list.
The bypass proposal had five options, which included doing nothing. The two most controversial options, labeled W4 and W5, required seizing some farmland and houses.
Gottlieb announced the department’s decision in a letter to Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and Rep. Evan Wynn, R-Whitewater. He acknowledged citizen opposition to the proposal.
“Because of intense public and legislative interest in this study, I’ve directed our staff … to analyze how the two bypass alternatives would rank against other likely major project candidates,” he said.
“The bypass alternatives would not rank highly enough to warrant a recommendation for enumeration within a reasonable period of time,” Gottlieb said. “Therefore, I’ve directed that further development of the EIS, as it relates to the west Janesville area, be suspended indefinitely.”
Long-term work on environmental studies for the Highway 14 corridor between Darien and Janesville will continue, Gottlieb said.
“The department confirmed what we’ve been saying all along,” Everhart said. “Our concern was that if it was an alternative I-90/39 route during the expansion work, we’d end up with a four-lane ghost town when the Interstate project was completed.”
Credit for stopping the bypass should go to many, including the more than 1,800 people and 59 businesses who signed the petition, Everhart said.
“I also want to thank the town of Janesville board and the help of Sen. Cullen and Rep. Wynn,” he said.
Cullen applauded Gottlieb’s decision.
“I’m very happy for the people whose houses and farmland will not be destroyed because of this unneeded project,” Cullen said. “I’m very grateful to Sec. Gottlieb for his handling of this matter at the very top of the department, and, of course, I’m grateful for his decision.”
Wynn did not return calls for comments on this story.
Cullen and Wynn, in a May 15 letter to Gottlieb, pointed out that the Wisconsin Legislative Council said advancing the bypass without the enumeration would raise serious legal concerns.
“The idea of sidestepping legislative oversight and public scrutiny … would engender little public support, and attaching the bypass to the I-90/39 expansion project would raise serious questions regarding its immediate necessity and independent utility,” Cullen and Wynn said.
Everhart said Neighbors United will continue to monitor construction plans in the area.
“Janesville could grow to the west and other things could affect transportation needs,” he said. “Maybe something will be needed down the line, but we believe a bypass is not needed now.”