Cut off by overpass
Since the road to his business was closed the week after Memorial Day, Raj Bhandari has seen his sales plummet at the Buffalo Spirit Village Citgo station. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is currently constructing an overpass that carries Cty. C/North Star Drive over Hwy. 51, cutting off access to the side roads from Hwy. 51 in the process.
Buffalo Spirit, situated at the corner of Hwy. 51 and North Star Drive, saw the vast majority of its business come off the highway. With that access cut off, Bhandari has seen his business drop by about 98 percent, he said.
“It’s real, real bad,” he said. “We’re now doing all day what we were doing in 10 minutes. We’re getting five or six customers a day.”
Bhandari had fair warning that the overpass project was coming, but moving a gas station is not a feasible option. His only choices were to close up shop, or stay open and hope for the best. He is hoping that once the overpass is completed, more customers will be able to reach the station.
“We’ll at least go through the construction and see what happens after that,” he said. “One thing I learned is that you can’t fight the DOT.”
Faced with the certainty that the project would impact his business, Bhandari has been fighting the overpass and trying to convince the DOT to add exit ramps to the project for over a year. He and his family even walked to Madison last summer to make their point.
Bhandari filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this year in an attempt to stop the project. The federal judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case, but the project got underway May 13. Bhandari is hoping he can continue the case.
“To fight it you need money, which I don’t have anymore,” he said. “I think I may have to do fund raising to continue with the lawsuit, if we can.”
For now, Buffalo Spirit Village sits at the end of a dead-end road. The business had five employees prior to the project, and now Bhandari is tending the store himself most of the time.
The DOT has received grant money to undertake the $1.8 million overpass project, which is meant to remove the dangers of the previous at-grade intersection. The overpass is part of a plan for that stretch of Hwy. 51 first developed in the 1970s.
The DOT has been unreceptive to pleas for ramps at the intersection, citing the guidelines for spacing between ramps. The ramps at the Cty. K interchange are closer to North Star Drive than what those guidelines dictate.
Bhandari said he has received support from the county, town of Merrill and the surrounding community.