WHITEWATER—Community leaders in Walworth County plan to send a petition to state legislators that pushes for a completed environmental impact study of Highway 12.

Their main concern: an accident-prone stretch of Highway 12 from Elkhorn to Whitewater.

Highway 12 is a four-lane highway between Genoa City and Elkhorn. It switches to a two-lane winding road from Elkhorn to Whitewater. 

The state Department of Transportation mapped out a route from Elkhorn to Whitewater 50 years ago, said Jeffery Knight, president and CEO of the Greater Whitewater Committee.

“It's really the last unconstructed section of the recommended freeway system in southeastern Wisconsin,” said Michael Hahn, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Hahn and Knight were among the speakers at the Highway 12 Transportation Forum on May 19 at Gateway Technical College in Elkhorn. A video of the forum is available online.

Knight said forum participants agreed that a petition is needed to urge the DOT to finish an environmental impact study it started but later cancelled, Knight said.

The study had been included in the 2013-15 state budget.

Knight said he understands transportation budgets are tight, but the absence of a study could make the Highway 12 project ineligible for federal money if President Donald Trump's administration wants to invest in infrastructure.

“Our hope is they can get the EIS done, then based on the money they got and the merit of the project, we'd like to compare it to others to be built,” Knight said. “Nobody in the area has asked to go to the front of the line.”

Safety and traffic congestion are among the reasons the study must be finished, said Knight, who favors making Highway 12 four lanes from Elkhorn to Whitewater.

The Elkhorn-to-Whitewater segment saw 404 traffic accidents between 2011 and 2015, Hahn said. About 15 percent of those—59 accidents—resulted in fatalities or injuries.

Those numbers exceed the state's average crash rate, he said.

Regarding traffic congestion, "the average annual daily traffic volumes between the end of the four-lane segment of Highway 12 and County ES have historically exceeded the 14,000 capacity of a two-lane highway,” states a news release the Redline Coalition issued before the May 19 forum. “Additionally, traffic between County ES and County A is beginning to approach the capacity.”

Traffic congestion causes problems in summer, Knight said, because Walworth County is a popular tourism destination—the sixth-largest statewide.

The congestion affects UW-Whitewater, too, Knight said. UW-W is the only four-year university in the state that does not have a four-lane highway leading to campus, he said.

Addressing Highway 12's deficiencies would benefit economic development, Knight said, because shoppers and businesses could more easily travel between Elkhorn and Whitewater.

He said industries have located in Whitewater with the assumption that Highway 12 would be improved.

“Once they do the EIS, at least people have certainty where the route is going to go,” he said. “We're comfortable asking, 'Please finish this study.' Once the study is done, there is certainty in this county. People can understand where they might develop, where they should invest more money or not.”