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Traffic moves along the Highway 26 bypass Thursday afternoon around Milton. The route’s opening in 2013 sharply curtailed the traffic volume along Janesville Street through the downtown.

Anthony Wahl

The arrival of a new restaurant, Tasty Bites, at the former Burger King site in Milton is further proof the Highway 26 bypass has been an economic blessing.

After the bypass opened in 2013 and siphoned traffic from Janesville Street, some people said the subsequent closings of Burger King, the Milton Travel Center and an adjoining McDonald’s demonstrated the bypass had hurt Milton.

The travel center’s owner even sued the state Department of Transportation over the bypass, arguing he was entitled to compensation because his customers no longer had direct access to his business.

Some readers following this lawsuit (the travel center’s owner, Amin Shaikh, said he was fighting the legal battle as “a matter of principle”) might have concluded all businesses along Janesville Street suffered to some degree like this gas station. But such a conclusion assumes too many similarities among the businesses affected by the bypass.

While it’s true gas stations and many fast-food restaurants rely on high visibility and easy access to lure customers, many other successful businesses draw customers happy to drive a little farther. An independently operated outfit such as Tasty Bites will build its customer base through word of mouth, not so much eyeballs from the roadway. And, for the record, it’s not like Tasty Bites sits in the boonies. It’s a mere two-minute drive from the bypass.

While the bypass hurt a handful of businesses, the Milton downtown today is a better off for the simple reason that Janesville Street now carries minimal heavy truck traffic. With a flip of the bypass switch in 2013, the downtown became more pedestrian friendly.

Shopping in a downtown nowadays is mainly a leisure experience, but promoting this leisure experience requires cities to invest in a downtown’s “vibe.”

To Milton’s south, the city of Janesville has been trying to improve its downtown’s vibe by tearing out an unsightly parking deck and building a town square and water fountain. City planners are also working to slow traffic along Milwaukee and Court streets by converting the streets into a two-ways with the goal of making the area more pedestrian friendly.

In Milton’s case, bypass opponents promoted quantity over quality, mistakenly assuming economic growth depends on higher traffic volumes. Sure, everybody wants a bustling downtown, but there’s good bustle and bad bustle.

Good bustle involves strolling along sidewalks and bumping into friends and neighbors. It’s about hearing the laughter of children leaving an ice cream shop or the chatter of a family walking through a park.

Bad bustle is the blast of a truck’s air brakes or a large plume of semitrailer truck exhaust. Being loud and obnoxious, bad bustle stifles good bustle, though bypass opponents were too fixated on their own interests to recognize the difference.

Milton isn’t the first and won’t be the last community to wrestle over the merits of a bypass. To its credit, Milton leaders didn’t allow a vocal minority to derail the community’s long-term interests. These leaders kept their sights on the greater good.

Our hope is that more businesses like Tasty Bites—locally owned and operated—will flourish in the coming years. Milton’s downtown, no longer encumbered by traffic congestion, is now free to reach its full potential.

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