Reroute of road can't get on track

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Stan Milam
Monday, October 8, 2012

— The village of Walworth and its school district can't agree how to reroute Highway 14 through downtown, and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is in the middle.

More than a year ago, the village plan commission and village board unanimously voted in favor of a route that would eliminate right-angle turns on the village square.

The school district doesn't like that option because it would put the highway within 38 feet of the Walworth Joint School District No. 1 elementary-middle school.

"Our main concern regarding this highway project is the safety of our students," said Pam Knorr, administrator of the school district. "The option adopted by the village would put semi traffic within 38 feet of our locker room used by our students."

Walworth Police Chief Chris Severt counters that the right-angle turns that carry Highway 14 around two sides of the town square are problematic for semitrailer trucks. Traffic lights get knocked down, and pieces of the signals have been thrown through the display window of an antique store on the square, Severt said.

He supports the plan to eliminate the right-angle turns that would include taking down the antique store on the southeast corner of the square.

The controversy is now in its second year.

Village Board President David Rasmussen disagrees the realignment would create safety issues at the school and said it's the best option.

He said there are two alternatives to the route recommended by the village board.

One alternative is a Highway 14 bypass around the village.

The other is widening the highway on the village square but not eliminating the right-angle turns.

"First of all, there will not be a bypass," Rasmussen said. "The DOT has told us that.

"The other alternative has safety issues that outweigh the plan we have approved. That alternative keeps truck traffic on the square northbound and southbound, eliminates angle parking, puts islands in the street, replaces parking on the square with green space and continues the right-angle turning, which is the problem we are trying to deal with in the first place."

Rasmussen said Knorr's school safety concerns have been addressed.

"That route keeps traffic away from the school and areas where students congregate," he said. "The route is nowhere near the west side of the school where students get on and off the bus. The route we've approved also takes truck traffic off Beloit Street in front of the school."

Knorr said the school's front entrance on Beloit Avenue is where parents pick up middle school students, and the route preferred by the village board would force the district to look for alternatives.

"We have 390 students who use that entrance, and this proposal forces us to abandon that entrance and use the elementary entrance on Freemont Street, which is already crowded," she said. "The bottom line here is that the proposed route, for several reasons, is just too close to the school."

Knorr said she has no recommendations on how to solve the existing traffic problem.

"We're educators, not engineers," she said. "Our concern is the safety of the children, and this route approved by the village does not address those concerns. I trust the DOT will do its job."

Rasmussen said he doesn't understand the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's stance on the project.

"Our part-time planner drew up a preliminary plan to get this truck traffic off the square," Rasmussen said. "The DOT engineers drew that plan up. Now, the DOT is acting like some kind of intermediary between the village and the school district."

The DOT is not communicating well with the village, Rasmussen said.

"They called a meeting in Waukesha for Oct. 4 without checking with us," he said. "We all have jobs. We can't just drop work and drive to Waukesha when the DOT decides it's convenient for them."

The Oct. 4 meeting later was canceled. DOT spokesman Michael Pyritz said the meeting will be rescheduled, but no date has been set.

In the end, the DOT will decide which route is used and any "tweaks" to that route, Pyritz said.

"Both plans have pluses and minuses," he said. "What we have to do—and we must do it soon—is make a decision based on the needs and concerns of the entire community. These projects have long-term implications, and we want to make sure we don't look back 20 years from now and see major problems.

"The department will make the final decision on the route, but we need to make sure we take into consideration and respect all sides," he said. "It should also be noted that these two plans are not yet cast in stone. They could be tweaked."

One possibility is adjusting the plan preferred by the village board by shifting the route farther from the school, but that would require more land from the square's Heyer Park.

"That's a possibility," Rasmussen said. "By taking the truck traffic off the square, we could reclaim some park space on the north and east side of the square.

"But these are minor issues," Rasmussen said. "The DOT needs to approve our plan and get the project moving."

Pyritz agreed.

"This is a federal highway and requires federal approval," Pyritz said. "Before we go to the federal government, we need to make sure we have carefully considered all options. That's why this next meeting is so important."

Pyritz said the DOT expects to make a decision and start moving forward on the project by the end of the year. Environmental impact studies and other studies would be required prior to construction.

The preliminary project schedule calls for completion and publication of the environmental assessment in March 2013, right of way acquisition from June 2013 to June 2015 and construction in 2020. The cost of the project is estimated at $7 million not including right of way acquisition.

In addition to the highway realignment at the village square, the project calls for resurfacing Highway 14 outside the village north to County K and south to the state line.

Last updated: 4:53 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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