Local officials are pushing for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to include on-ramps in a planned overhead crossing of Hwy. 51 at North Star Drive. Under the current WisDOT plan, County Rd. C/North Star Drive would cross Hwy. 51 on an overpass with no access to or from the freeway.
Regional WisDOT representatives met with local government officials last week to discuss the project.
“We’re here to hear what concerns local units of government have,” said Russ Habeck, WisDOT northern region transportation systems development manager.
What they heard was overwhelming support for maintaining access to the highway from North Star Drive.
WisDOT has been awarded $2 million in federal safety funding for the project. Since the expressway between Merrill and Tomahawk was built in the 1990s, North Star Drive has met the four-lane at an at-grade intersection, which has proven to be among the top five percent of most dangerous intersections in the state. According to Merrill Fire Chief Bob Odegard, the Merrill ambulance service has annually responded to an average of six crashes at the intersection. There have been at least four fatalities and over 50 injuries in crashes at the intersection.
“This intersection is bad enough to qualify for safety funds. There’s no question that it’s a safety issue,” Habeck said. “If we build an overpass the potential for crashes is gone.”
The original plan for the freeway between Merrill and Tomahawk called for the overhead crossing at North Star Drive, along with several other components that are yet to be completed. The only interchanges in the plans were the current ramps at Hwy. 51 and County Rd. K and an as-yet-unbudgeted interchange at the north end of County Rd. K, where it meets the four-lane south of Irma.
The prospect of an interchange at North Star Drive is dimmed by a couple of factors: cost, and the federal standards for the spacing of interchanges on rural freeways.
The state has the money to build the overpass, which is bringing the project to the forefront. But, it doesn’t have the $4-6 million additional dollars needed to construct an interchange.
The standards for rural freeways dictate that interchanges be located no closer than three miles apart. The North Star Drive intersection with Hwy. 51 is just over one mile north of the existing interchange at County Rd. K.
“These would be way too close together to meet our standards,” said Habeck. “The idea is to limit access points. That’s the whole point of a high-speed freeway.”
Hwy. 51 was designated as a freeway back in 1972, with sections upgraded to four lanes over the years stretching into Oneida County. In the late 1980s, WisDOT began working with Lincoln County and the local townships on planning for the project that was ultimately completed in the 1990s, expanding the highway to four lanes from Merrill to County Rd. S just south of Tomahawk.
Due to budget restrictions, that project was amended to be an expressway, with a number of at-grade intersections. The intent was to convert it to a freeway as budgeting allowed.
The North Star Drive overpass is currently on the table due to the availability of the safety funding. The property necessary to build the overpass has already been purchased by the state and soil borings are currently being done in preparation for the overpass structure.
“This whole project is driven by safety. We want to improve this intersection as quickly as we can,” said Robin Stafford, WisDOT project development supervisor.
Local officials argued that blocking highway access from North Star Drive would not only inconvenience motorists but could hamper the area’s economy.
Merrill Town Supervisor Scott Voigt said that emergency vehicle service would be greatly impeded in the township by the lack of on/off ramps at North Star Drive. The overpass would cut off the town’s newly created business park and reduce the opportunities for economic expansion in the township, he added. The Buffalo Spirit gas station at the corner of Hwy. 51 and North Star Drive would certainly close, he said, and there would be very little use of the new overpass.
“Where have we made an improvement by putting in an overpass that would see relatively little traffic,” Voigt said.
Odegard agreed that cutting off highway access at North Star Drive would hamper emergency response times in some areas. “Without ramps we would have an extra 6-8 minutes response time,” he said. “That extra time is really valuable.”
County Board Supervisor Bob Lee said County Rd. C is an important thoroughfare for the local logging industry.
“We need to examine the impact on our pulp haulers. That extra distance is important to them,” Lee said.
Lincoln County Highway Commissioner Jerry Jagmin said, “If you don’t put ramps out here you’re shutting off the town of Merrill. If you put ramps out there this area could flourish. It’s imperative for the DOT to do this for the people of Lincoln County.”
Jagmin added that he believes putting in an overpass at North Star Drive will create new safety issues.
“All you’re going to do is move the accident rate up the road (to the Lincoln Drive intersection, another at-grade intersection north of North Star).”
Habeck noted that the plan, going back to the 1970s, has always called for an overpass at North Star Drive.
“At this point it’s our position that we’re building an overpass,” he said. “There are things we do that affect people positively and things we do that affect people negatively. We have to balance that.”
Habeck added that there is a process to request a waiver to the interchange spacing rules.
“We would have to see if there are reasons to look at that process. Both Madison and the federal highway administration would have to be convinced (to make an exception),” he said.
Habeck said the DOT will hold a public information meeting in January or February to hear the people’s concerns.
Stafford said the construction of an overpass would begin in the spring of 2013. If the project can be changed to include on-ramps the start date would likely be delayed by years to account for the much more intensive design process.