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Wisconsin DOT opens study of possible future I-39/90/94 construction from Madison to Dells area

Schave of DOT explains potential I-39/90/94 project

Wisconsin Department of Transportation Major Studies Supervisor Dan Schave, left, speaks with people about the Interstate 39/90/94 study at Wintergreen Conference Center in Lake Delton on Sept. 14.

A large stretch of highway from Madison to near Wisconsin Dells is being studied for possible upgrades.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation held a public meeting regarding issues and possible solutions for a 67-mile corridor of Interstate 39/90/94 from Madison to the southern portion of Juneau County.

Problems such as deteriorating pavement and bridges, flooding history, traffic congestion, and outdated lane configurations leading to a high volume of crashes highlight WisDOT's considerations for the future.

The department held the meeting at the Wintergreen Conference Center in Lake Delton. It also held a similar event at Yahara Elementary School in DeForest on Tuesday.

"This corridor has some aging infrastructure," said Dan Schave, a WisDOT Major Studies Supervisor. "It was originally built in the '60s. Pretty old bridges and pavement along the corridor. We have frequent congestion issues, which leads to a lot of safety issues, especially during our peak periods on Fridays and Sundays."

Any project coming from the study would not change the corridor route. Added lanes along the corridor and on exit ramps are major possibilities, according to WisDOT officials. No new sections have been explored yet.

Fridays and Sundays present especially high traffic volume during the summer months, often with travelers going to and coming from Wisconsin Dells. The proposed corridor stretches from I-39/90's intersection with Highways 12/18 (Beltline Highway) in Madison to Juneau County between the Dells area and Lyndon Station.

Schave also discussed sustainability issues in the area where I-39 splits off near Portage. He mentioned a large flood in 2008 that caused a full interstate closure, multiple flood-related shutdowns, as well as sandbagging operations to combat flooding in 2018. There have been six notable floods in the past 30 years along the corridor.

Pavement conditions have also gotten progressively worse, and have been exacerbated by the increased amount of freight vehicles stemming from the spike in e-commerce purchases following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Truck volumes along the 67-mile corridor increased 12% to 16% from 2019 to 2021.

"This interstate corridor is vitally important to the state," said Schave, adding that over $100 billion in freight passes through it annually.

Intersections that have carried high accident volumes along the corridor include the one with Highway 151 in Madison, the I-39 split, and the Dells area intersections with Highway 12 and Highway 13.

A potential project could add two new interchanges near the Madison area, with one on Interstate 94 just east of the Badger interchange (interchange between I-94, I-39/90, and Highway 30), and the other just north of it on I-39/90/94. Fifteen interchanges would be evaluated for safety and ability to accommodate current and future traffic demand.

Schave is optimistic that the department understands what the 67-mile corridor needs in order to improve the infrastructure and traffic flow, as well as decrease the risks of crashes and flooding shutdowns.

The corridor includes a long bridge over the Wisconsin River in Columbia County just before I-39 splits off. That bridge will be replaced by two separate bridges with traffic in both directions. This project is receiving $80 million in federal funding, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The department will have input from citizens of communities near and along the corridor, businesses, public works departments, law enforcement agencies, municipal and county governments, state government, and tribes.

"Anybody that is affected or impacted, both close to the interstate and also those who are impacted away from the interstate but utilize the interstate as a means of business," said Frank Pritzlaff, a WisDOT project manager. "We've got excess of 23% trucks, so that's a large population."

Pritzlaff added that various environmental organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are also heavily involved with project planning.

"We are trying to reach out to everybody that we can," he said.

Possible consequences of no project

A main point of the study was to emphasize what could result if the study, which is slated to last through 2024, does not move forward as a project.

WisDOT anticipates that 86 bridge structures would require replacement or significant construction within the next 30 years, as well as 16 possible pavement maintenance/rehabilitation projects.

"If you did those individually, you would have a lot more impact with the traveling public and, likely, more costly in the long run," said Schave regarding the potential bridge projects.

Nearly all of the bridges along the corridor will require maintenance or replacement before 2040, according to WisDOT. The many bridge projects, along with the projected concrete work needed with no official project, could cause severe delays, even in rural areas.

Schave said that a full project on the corridor would be more cost-effective. He said that the pavement projects would require the department to seek contracts every year, which he said "adds up" because of contractors' needs to redistribute their equipment each time.

Night construction would mitigate and even eliminate delays in the Madison and Dells areas, but is more costly and dangerous, as well as not possible in some areas along the corridor.

The department made future traffic calculations prior to the public meeting and determined that the entire corridor would have much more congestion by 2050 if no project results from the study.

Study schedule

The study began in May, when the department began collecting data and developing project purpose and need, as well as alternatives for various situations, including no project. The scoping process for a potential project will happen during the upcoming winter.

In 2023, more alternatives will be developed and the department will begin analyzing the studied area with regard to possible environmental impacts of a project. WisDOT will also hold two more public involvement meetings during the year.

More public involvement and a May public hearing are slated for 2024, as well as a completed environmental analysis. The department hopes to have a project in place by the end of 2024.

There will be three total public involvement meetings, including the ones earlier this week.

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