Wisconsin’s transportation chief said Thursday he is “very familiar” with the stretch of Highway 12 between Whitewater and Elkhorn that has long been a concern for residents, but he stopped short of offering immediate solutions.
“We have folks looking at it,” Department of Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said. “It’s a very worthy project.”
Thompson was speaking at the Greater Whitewater Committee’s annual meeting Thursday at 841 Brewhouse. He said the DOT’s focus largely will be updating and maintaining existing roads and that spearheading new, significant projects like a Highway 12 expansion would be difficult.
Residents along the winding corridor between the two cities have long asked the state to commission an environmental impact study, which must be completed before the project can receive federal funding. Residents say cars often speed along Highway 12 and that it’s prone to deadly car crashes.
Thompson told reporters the DOT has not yet decided to commission an environmental impact study of a new route, which would cost several million dollars. Such a study likely could be completed in less than two years, but it could take seven years after a study is commissioned to break ground on a project, he said.
Jeff Bluhm lives off Highway 12 about 8 miles north of Elkhorn and manages a business nearby. He said he understands the state’s financial constraints, but after Thompson’s speech, he wasn’t hopeful anything would happen soon.
“He’s aware of it. He knows how important it is to us,” Bluhm said. “But it’s not going to happen until there’s means to make it happen.”
Sylvia Baker also attended Thursday’s meeting and was “very encouraged” by Thompson’s remarks. She lives within 50 feet of Highway 12. She said the number of crashes seems to be snowballing.
She said Thompson seems willing to listen to residents’ concerns and that finding a way to pay for road improvements statewide is paramount.
“It is scary, the number of accidents we’re seeing. People are being killed,” she said.
Thompson also told attendees he supports a gas tax increase, but he wouldn’t say by how much. The current rate is 32.9 cents per gallon. He also said he is “wide open” to open-road tolling but that the DOT would not pursue it now because it would take action at the federal level before the state could implement tolls.
During his talk, Thompson said Wisconsin is the second most transportation-dependent economy in the country but has some of the roughest roads. He said 32 percent of the state’s highways are in good condition, which is a far lower percentage than any other Midwestern state.
Gov. Tony Evers appointed Thompson to head the DOT last year, and he assumed the post Jan. 7. Thompson said he is working with Evers and a 34-member task force to hammer out transportation funding proposals.
Evers is expected to introduce his 2019-20 state budget at the end of the month, and it could include a gas tax hike.