Milton travel center likely to remain cut off from pending bypass

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, October 13, 2012

— The prospects appear dim for a Milton gas station that’s being cut off from passing traffic by the pending Highway 26 bypass.

While state and city officials have sought potential solutions in recent days, they say there appear to be few, if any, viable options to create an access road for the Mobil Travel Center, which is at Arthur Drive and Highway 26 on the city’s southeast end.

The gas station essentially will become and island cut off from passing traffic when the Highway 26 bypass around Milton is complete.

State plans for the bypass show Highway 26 skirting sharply east just south of the gas station. At the same time, the state plans to dead-end the current Highway 26 just north of Arthur Drive.

Milton officials asked the state Department of Transportation in a meeting in Madison last week if it would be viable for the city to build an access road from Arthur Drive to Townline Road to give motorists on Highway 26 a more direct route to the gas station.

The road, which would be a city-funded, municipal street, would run a half-mile south through Crossridge Park and link to the new Townline Road overpass, which currently has no direct access to Highway 26.

Under the state’s current reconfiguration of Harmony-Townhall Road and Townline Road, motorists on Highway 26 could only reach Arthur Drive by taking a figure-eight exchange to Parkview Drive and then drive several blocks through a residential subdivision.

City officials viewed the access road as a last-resort solution because it wouldn’t be directly tied to the Highway 26 project. Officials said the Highway 26 project is federally funded, and at this point, the state could not get approval for major changes.

DOT officials have since hinted that an access road could face federal environmental hurdles and even “legal challenge” because it runs through a city park.

In an Oct. 4 email to City Administrator Jerry Schuetz, Steve Krieser, executive assistant to state transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, wrote:

“Because the project would be built as a direct consequence of the Highway 26 Milton bypass federal aid project and because it would traverse a municipal park as proposed, the city may be obligated to subject the project to a federal Section 4(f) (environmental) review.”

Krieser wrote that not getting federal review of the plan could open the city to “legal risk.”

Rep. Evan Wynn, who spurred the meeting last week between state officials and the city, said he believes the state is using federal regulations as a “red flag” to quash the idea of an access road before it gets serious consideration.

Wynn, R-Whitewater, jumped into the gas station’s dead-end dilemma last month when the station’s owner, Milton resident Amin Shaikh, reached out to him.

“I just think this is wrong to not find a solution to help a businessman,” Wynn said. “He’s not losing traffic and customers because it’s his fault. He’s losing it because of a state road.”

DOT design plans for the Milton portion of the bypass were approved in 2005.

The gas station was built in 1998 and has been owned by Shaikh since 2002. Shaikh said the gas station has generated at least $1 million a year in tax revenue despite business tapering off since the General Motors plant in Janesville idled in 2009.

It’s not clear what it would cost the city to build the access road, and the idea has not been formally brought to the city council.

Alderman Brett Frazier, one official involved in the meeting last week, said that based on past street projects, the work could cost the city as much as $500,000.

He’s not sure the expense would be worthwhile.

“I’m not sure that really solves his (Shaikh’s) problems,” he said. “All you’d be doing is bypassing a subdivision.”

Shaikh’s gas station is not the only Milton business that could feel the pinch of the bypass, which state officials say will route 16,000 cars a day around Milton.

The city for the last three years has been working on a plan to transform its east side downtown into a city center oriented to pedestrian and local traffic.

Frazier, who works as an economic development official in Oregon, said that in the future the DOT should be required to do economic impact studies on major highway projects.

If the state had been required to study the potential economic effects of the bypass and inform businesses of the impact prior to setting the project in stone, the state might have changed its plans, he said.

Wynn said he plans to introduce Frazier’s idea as state legislation. He said it’s too easy for state-level bureaucrats to push the onus onto local officials and businesses to educate themselves on the impacts of a major road project.

“The problem with that is that city officials and business owners might not be experts on reading blueprint maps to say, ‘Okay, that’s not a frontage road, that’s a bypass,’” Wynn said.

Wynn said he wonders why the state ever decided to put an interchange at Harmony-Townhall Road instead of Townline Road.

“Common sense would say, ‘I want to get off at McDonald’s and the Mobil gas station, not some country road,’” Wynn said.

Wynn said based on preliminary state plans, he believes the DOT put the interchange at Harmony-Townhall Road to reduce traffic detoured to Highway 26 during the pending Interstate 90/39 expansion project.

He said he has been unable to verify whether the state actually plans that strategy.

Last updated: 4:50 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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