U.S. Highway 41 might become interstate by 2014

Posted on May 18, 2012 :: Insight on Business, Web Exclusive.
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State and local officials hope to see U.S. Highway 41 designated as a federal interstate, which they say would boost economic prospects in Northeast Wisconsin and help attract new industry to the region.

The conversion project has roots in 2005 federal legislation that identified the U.S. Highway 41 corridor as a potential interstate route. Gov. Scott Walker announced his support last year and state officials hope to have the designation in place by 2014.

“This has great economic development potential for whole eastern half of Wisconsin, from Green Bay on down to Milwaukee,” says DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb. “This is a very important corridor for us.”

The investment in improving the U.S. Highway 41 corridor through Brown and Winnebago Counties alone is $1.5 billion, he says. “And to really get the maximum economic development bang for the buck, if you will, out of those investments, we should have interstate highway designation,” Gottlieb says.

State officials are holding a series of public meetings on the project, which they say has the support of economic development and business leaders, who last fall responded positively to an online survey, says Tammy Rabe, project leader, Division of Transportation Systems Development for the state DOT.

“Access and visibility from an interstate is a primary factor considered by businesses and developers in the site selection process,” she said. “Some companies only locate along interstate highways, and the ability to attract those larger corporations will also result in ancillary development of hotels, retail, restaurants and other related business.”

The minimum cost of the conversion would be $12 million for new signs both along the route from the Illinois border to Green Bay and on side roads directing traffic to the interstate. The project likely wouldn’t require any additional construction upgrades besides what’s already happening along the corridor since the state is building to 70-mile-per-hour freeway standards which are virtually the same as those for interstates, Rabe said.

Traffic along the corridor ranges from 27,000 to 150,000 vehicles per day, 10 to 20 percent of which is truck traffic.

Two possible impacts to industry could include new standards for that truck traffic. Both the interstate system and Highway 41 have weight limits of 80,000 pounds. But about 15 percent of trucks traveling the corridor have state exemptions or permits to exceed the weight limits, particularly those in the agriculture, timber, scrap metal and waste industries. U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl drafted legislation into the Senate transportation appropriation bill (currently in committee) that would grandfather in those exemptions, Rabe said. Similar exemptions were granted when U.S. Highway 51 became I-39.

The second impact would be to the outdoor advertising industry, which would not be allowed to erect new billboards or replace old ones, though current ones would be exempt and the federal laws wouldn’t apply to on-premise signage, Rabe said.

But the biggest question on people’s minds: “What will that route number be?” Rabe said. “We wish we had an answer for the public, and everyone right now, but it’s quite a process.”

A number of policies set by the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have to be followed, Rabe said. The idea of adding the route as a part of Interstate 55 – which runs through Illinois all the way to the Gulf – has been discussed but hit a dead end, Gottlieb said. Illinois officials had concerns about both the cost of signage to their state as well as the concern about increased traffic to the Loop. It’s possible it would simply become Interstate 41, but there are normally standards against having both an Interstate and a U.S. highway of the same name, and part of U.S. 41 would continue north of Green Bay. It could become I-47 because it’s not an interstate number that’s being used anywhere else, Rabe said. It could be I-643, which would make the route officially a loop connecting with Interstate 43 along Lake Michigan – but that would make it the largest loop in the nation. The interstate also could become a “spur” of Interstate 94, making it something like I-594. State officials prefer to keep it a two-digit designation if possible, though, and will submit a recommendation to AASHTO in the fall, and that agency will make the final decision on the number.

Upcoming meetings in the New North, both held between 5 and 6:30 p.m. include:

Tuesday, May 22: Fox Valley Technical College Riverside Campus in Oshkosh, Conference Center Room 133.

Wednesday, May 23: Fond du Lac Public Library.

— Nikki Kallio