Residents voice displeasure to WisDOT at Town of Merrill meeting
About 35 Town of Merrill residents used a meeting Thursday – to brief area residents on the plans to construct an overpass that would take County Road C over Highway 51 – to unload a lot of frustration about the lack of ramps to allow traffic to continue get onto and off the expressway.
WisDOT officials called the meeting at the Town of Merrill Community Center to explain how the project will unfold as well as details of the project.
Matt Schumitsch of Merrill Gravel and Construction, who is the contractor on the project, said the start date for the project has already been pushed back to May 13 due to the prolonged cold weather. Once the project begins, through traffic will not be able to come down either County Road C or North Star Road.
On May 20, North Star Road is scheduled to close for a week-and-a-half to rebuild the railroad crossing and improve the approach to the overpass from the west. After that, the approach from the east will be improved.
Schumitsch said the work building up the approaches should be completed by the end of June, with the actual bridge construction starting by mid-August with concrete and paving work to follow. The overpass is set to be open by the end of September, if the weather cooperates.
Work of the project will be done from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday with Saturday work possible if weather causes the work to fall behind schedule.
“Closures of one lane in each direction (on Hwy. 51), frequently going both ways, will take place,” Schumitsch said. “The highway may be closed completely while we’re putting in the girders.”
During periods when Hwy. 51 is closed entirely, traffic will be detoured along County Rd K. Such closures will be done at night to minimize the impact on traffic.
Schumitsch said the dirt for the project will come from two sites on both ends of the project, which will, in turn, aid the farmers whose land the dirt is coming from by leveling previously unworkable land.
The residents waited until Schumitsch was done and Jeff Hess, Project Development Chief , North Central Division of WisDOT asked if there were any questions to unleash their barrage. Many questioned the sudden urgency of the project that made WisDOT spend state dollars on the project when it has been awaiting federal funds for years. Others questioned the accident statistics that were cited that listed the 51/C intersection as a “high priority accident intersection,” as Hess described it. Others felt that building the overpass without ramps would just shift the accidents to the Lincoln Drive exit a few miles north.
“You’re just going to pile up the accidents somewhere else,” Jayson Ellis said. “I’ve seen two accidents there and I’ve lived here my whole life. How is this a dangerous intersection?”
Hess was repeatedly asked if ramps could be added to the overpass later if federal funding comes through. Hess replied that the overpass, without ramps, is part of the long-range planning for that stretch of Hwy. 51 that started in the 1970s. He said any discussion outside of specifics already discussed would have to be addressed at another meeting, including any plans to monitor traffic patterns after the overpass is built.
“You just keep blowing off questions,” said Trey Houghtaling. “You’re really good at it, but you’re still blowing us off.”
Kristin McHugh, WisDOT Regional Communications Manager, said that residents will be kept abreast of the status of the project, along with lane closures, “by any means necessary.” She said this could include a website, local media and even an email listserv.
After the meeting, Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki voiced concerns the city has with the project and the impact it will have on city streets.
“We’re concerned that a lot of those big trucks will start coming through town and coming out Pier Street to get to the overpass,” he said.