WisDOT restates plan
Raj Bhandari, owner of Buffalo Spirit gas station/convenience store, is ready to expand his business to a full truck stop facility when an interchange is built at his intersection of Hwy. 51 and North Star Drive. Except, as of right now, those ramps aren’t going to be built.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is designing an overpass at the US 51/County C/North Star Road intersection in the town of Merrill. The new overpass will carry County C and North Star Road traffic over Hwy. 51, with no access to or from the freeway.
Bhandari said he was misled by a former WisDOT official in 2004 before he purchased the property. From that conversation, Bhandari said he believed the overpass would not be constructed for many years.
With no ramps, and an overpass cutting off access from the freeway, Bhandari sees no option but to close the business. But, he’s not going down without a fight.
“I’m going to protest to whatever level I can,” he said.
Raj’s 13-year-old son, Sunny, said he and his brother plan to walk to Madison this summer to see the governor about the issue.
WisDOT representatives met with the public at the Merrill Town Hall Thursday night to discuss the project. A few of those in attendance expressed agreement with plans for an overpass, but the majority were in favor of an interchange being built.
Lincoln County resident Phil Cohrs said the lack of ramps would not only be bad for Buffalo Spirit but would mean a loss of jobs and tax base for the town of Merrill.
“I don’t see anybody getting good out of a no-ramp bridge,” he said.
Lincoln County Board Supervisor Bill Zeitz added that an interchange at County C would benefit the town of Merrill’s new industrial park, located on County K.
This section of Hwy. 51 was designated as a freeway in 1972. In the early 1990s, freeway plans were designed and right of way was purchased for a future conversion to a freeway. Funding was not available to construct a freeway at that time, so the plan was amended to make the stretch of Hwy. 51 between Merrill and Tomahawk an expressway, with a number of at-grade intersections.
The future construction of an overpass at County C was discussed with Lincoln County and the town of Merrill officials when Hwy. 51 was relocated to its current location. All entities agreed to this concept and right of way was purchased to build the overpass. In the interim, an at-grade intersection was constructed.
“We communicated with local officials in the ’90s to facilitate long range planning,” said WisDOT’s Ken Wickham.
The crash history at that intersection puts it in the top 5 percent of rural intersection crashes in the state. The report annually identifies locations with the most severe safety needs along with an assessment of solutions and costs needed to solve the problems at these locations.
The majority of crashes were found to be right angle crashes with vehicles turning left from the side road onto Hwy. 51. The severity of the crashes at this intersection was one of the highest in the region for a rural expressway.
There are some discrepancies between the crash data from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department and the Wisconsin State Patrol, which were pointed out by audience members. WisDOT’s Robin Stafford said the department would compare the data.
Due to safety concerns at this location, funding was approved through WisDOT’s Highway Safety Improvement Program for the construction of an overpass.
“The reason this is being built now is because of safety,” Wickham said.
The department has guidelines for the minimum spacing between interchanges in a rural setting: from the end of one access ramp to the beginning of the next is two miles. The distance between the County C intersection and the ramps at County K interchange would be 4,500 feet. The distance between these two locations does not meet the department’s spacing requirements.
Stafford said that getting an exemption to the spacing rules would be a difficult process.
“I’m sure I’m not going to change your minds, but obviously we are moving forward on a certain course,” Wickham said of the plan to build an overpass.
State Senator Jim Holperin, who attended Thursday night’s meeting, said he would be willing to get involved in a meeting between local officials and the Secretary of Transportation.
“That overpass is going to be built if you don’t do that,” he said. “You can’t get cooperation from the DOT by beating up on the line staff. You should be beating up on the legislature and the upper echelon of the DOT.”
Merrill Town Board supervisor Mike Matushak said the board had already written to all local representatives and received no action. The County Board has also passed a resolution on the issue, Zeitz pointed out.
“I don’t think the DOT should have the power they have,” said Lincoln County Board Supervisor Ron Mittelsteadt. “The public has no recourse.”
Construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2013. During construction traffic crossing Hwy. 51 at County C/North Star Road will be detoured. Hwy. 51 will remain open during construction with some single lane closures. Brief nighttime closures of Hwy. 51 may be required to set beams for the overpass.
All needed right of way for this project was purchased when Hwy. 51 was moved to its current location.
Grant funds of $2 million have been approved for the overpass project. The cost of an interchange has been stated at $4-6 million more.