The state Department of Transportation is resuming work on a study of possible improvements to Highway 51 from McFarland to Stoughton — a move that could herald a shift for the department under Gov. Tony Evers’ administration.
The move was announced Friday in a report to the Transportation Projects Commission that gives biannual updates on large highway projects. It was the first filed under Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson, who took office last month.
Asked about the change, the department said in a statement that “adequately addressing the pavement and safety needs on this corridor requires” completing an environmental assessment as part of the study. The assessment was listed as “postponed” on previous reports after it was decided the department lacked sufficient funding to begin construction.
In a cover letter filed with the report, Thompson also wrote that program schedules “have been impacted by delayed or cancelled studies.”
“Further delay of these studies will result in unaddressed critical needs and additional deteriorating system conditions,” Thompson wrote.
Evers campaigned on finding a long-term funding fix for the state’s transportation network, potentially by increasing gas taxes or vehicle fees.
Previous Transportation Secretary Dave Ross, in an attempt to cut costs, pared back the department’s plans at the direction of former Gov. Scott Walker.
Ross pulled the plug on a sweeping plan to rebuild and improve a stretch of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee County and on a study of possible improvements to I-39-90-94 north of Madison.
Another study of possible improvements to the Madison Beltline remains officially underway, though area transportation officials said about a year ago that they have seen virtually no recent progress.
The new report shows about $1.2 million has been spent on the Beltline study since the last report in August. Department officials could not be reached over the weekend for comment.
On the plate
The new report says the department is restarting the Highway 51 assessment “to determine if and to what extent potential new information could impact” the previously shelved plan for that stretch of the highway. It calls for:
- Reconstructing the highway from the north edge of McFarland to the east edge of Stoughton.
- Improving various intersections, including adding turn lanes, along that stretch.
- Reconstructing the highway and adding a passing lane from the east edge of Stoughton to Interstate 39-90.
- Building a multi-use path from the north edge of Stoughton to Lake Kegonsa.
The report cites examples of new information as including “legislation, traffic (and) socioeconomic” factors.
The preferred plan identified by the study was one of several alternatives considered. Others included making no improvements or only minor improvements to the highway, or a far more expansive concept to widen the highway from two to four lanes from McFarland to Stoughton and build a four-lane highway bypass to the north of Stoughton.
Thompson remains subject to confirmation by the state Senate. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, citing Thompson’s background as a lobbyist, has said Senate approval is uncertain.
Projected costs also have increased slightly for a $1.2 billion reconstruction and expansion of Interstate 39-90 now underway from Madison to the Illinois line, according to the report.
The report shows the projected cost of the project increased by about 2 percent, or about $26 million, from the August report. All of the increase came in construction costs, including inflation.
The report says the $1.2 billion cost estimate for the project includes a controversial plan to realign and rebuild the Interstate’s interchange with the Madison Beltline. The plan leaves the northbound side of the Interstate at two lanes through the interchange while it grows to three lanes to the north and south, a configuration critics have called a “brand-new bottleneck.” The move would save the project $14 million.
An environmental study for the interchange plan is on track to be approved by federal officials this spring, according to the report.