Janesville Deputy Fire Chief Bill Ruchti said a semitrailer truck fire last week in the middle of the construction-choked stretch of Interstate 90/39 running through Janesville’s east side drew so many gawkers that traffic backed up in the lanes opposite of the truck fire.
I-90/39 between Beloit and Janesville has long been known for bottlenecks during crashes or roadside emergencies that can back up traffic for miles.
Backups resulting from rubbernecking also are typical.
Having a temporary traffic crossover between Janesville that has all four lanes of the road compressed into the Interstate’s southbound side and separated by a concrete barrier is anything but typical.
It also makes for a tight fit for emergency vehicles during crashes and other emergencies big enough to shut down lanes or otherwise tie up traffic.
“It’s definitely congested. It’s more difficult getting to and from locations. There is a limited area for traffic to move out of the right of way so (emergency) vehicles can pass,” Ruchti said.
The state Department of Transportation, the State Patrol and local public safety agencies prepared for the crossover by creating temporary ramps for emergency vehicles at overpasses in Janesville. Authorities also crafted plans for when emergencies occur in areas with no emergency shoulder or one that’s narrower than usual.
Ruchti said that depending on the nature of an incident, it might take public safety responders longer to navigate in and out of a crash or emergency area on the Interstate during construction.
It’s even more of a concern in areas between exits, where backups from crashes can grow longer and take more time to clear.
The truck fire last week in Janesville backed up traffic a couple of miles in the northbound lanes where the burning truck was and delayed traffic about a half hour at one point, the State Patrol said.
That was minor compared to an early-morning crash earlier this month on the northbound side of the Interstate.
A semi hit a construction barrier along I-90/39 north of Shopiere Road at the exit for the Wisconsin State Patrol Safety and Weight Enforcement facility between Beloit and Janesville. The area is within the temporary traffic crossover set up for the Interstate expansion project.
The crash happened about 5 a.m., according to the State Patrol. It took six hours to clear the scene, and traffic backed up 4.5 miles south of the crash at times, according to the State Patrol. While the lane was shut down and traffic was diverted through the weigh station’s lane, a pickup truck caught on fire in a separate incident.
Any crashes in construction zones are reviewed by a DOT panel that looks at the causes and circumstances surrounding the crash, said Steve Theisen, a project spokesman for the DOT.
Theisen said that for sections of the Interstate expansion with lane crossovers, sections of the concrete dividing wall can be removed so emergency vehicles can more easily reach obstructed crashes.
There are also some stretches in the lane crossover area with wider emergency pull-off spots where emergency vehicles can travel and motorists can pull over and more safely change tires or handle other roadside problems.
Theisen said the DOT learns ways it might make the work zones safer for drivers through review of incidents in work zones. One strategy could include installing more signs to alert drivers to lane crossovers.
The I-90/39 corridor between Janesville and Beloit and sections north of Janesville to Madison are slated to be under lane expansion construction over the next two and a half years.
The specter of crashes occurring in those zones will be a longer-term concern for motorists who travel the route.
The DOT regularly updates public safety agencies of upcoming work staging and temporary lane closures during projects, just as it updates the public on construction phases in any long-term or short-term project, Theisen said.
Theisen said people who regularly travel stretches of I-90/39 that are under construction should realize they share the road with others who might be less familiar with the route.
He cautioned against speeding, tailgating and using cellphones while driving through work areas.
“If you commute (on I-90/39) between Beloit and Janesville and Madison every day, you can’t get complacent,” he said.