Anyone who regularly drives the stretch of Interstate 41 between north Appleton and De Pere is familiar with the situation: the brake lights ahead of you come on, you see the line of cars ahead of you and you know you’re mostly likely in for a delay. It could be a minor or major situation, leading to a minor or major slowdown.
The good news: Expansion of the 23.6-mile stretch between State 96 in Grand Chute and Scheuring Road in De Pere received funding approval from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The bad: The work, which will expand the stretch from four lanes to six, won’t get underway until 2025, with expected completion in 2029.
Walt Raith, assistant director of the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, says the project is long overdue, and anytime a roadway reduces from six lanes to four, the bottleneck causes problems.
“It’s an economic development issue. Every time you’re stopped in traffic, it’s millions of dollars an hour that’s sitting there, not to mention the safety aspect,” he says. “(I-41) is really the cylinder of the economic engine for the region.”
The ECWRPC serves as the metropolitan planning organization for the Fox Cities. Part of its work includes meeting federal requirements to assemble long-range transportation plans that look out 25 years into the future. The organization has long viewed expanding the stretch as a priority.
Raith and the ECWRPC work closely with the DOT to look at traffic congestion issues, put together crash data and analyze where crashes occur and why. In the case of the Appleton-De Pere stretch, one of the whys is not hard to identify.
“It’s just like a water pipe. If you reduce it down, it’s going to cause problems, and it does cause problems,” Raith says.
More than 65,000 cars pass through the stretch on a typical day, and on some days, it’s well more than that. Once you reach that level, or 2,000 cars per hour, per lane, a roadway is at capacity, Raith says.
Raith says the stretch sees almost daily incidents, some large and some small. Either way, the slowdowns prove costly. Whether it’s a semitrailer or a commuter stuck in traffic, it means lost money, he says.
Peter Thillman, vice president of economic development for the Fox Cities Regional Partnership, says the expansion also could help address the chronic labor shortage. Improving traffic flow could allow prospective workers to consider jobs where they would have to commute a little farther.
“Now you have a more mobile workforce, and if you have an expanded network of transportation, it’s easier to move that workforce between employment opportunities,” he says.
Expanding another portion of I-41 has already proven successful, Raith says. When the stretch between Highway 26 in Oshkosh and the Breezewood/Bell exit in Neenah expanded from four lanes, crashes dropped more than 50 percent, and he would anticipate the same for this project.
Raith says funding is difficult to acquire. Though it’s come through, the wait for relief will continue. Environmental studies will begin next year and last through 2022, and engineering and design work will take place between 2023 and 2024.
Because of the difficulty of securing funding, Thillman won’t get his wish of seeing the stretch expand from four lanes to eight instead of six, but he says it’s important to be forward-thinking and does see the need for an even larger expansion.
The importance of I-41 can’t be understated, says Raith, adding it’s absurd it’s taken this long to get the project moving.
“How many dollars an hour is that every time (an incident) happens, and how long would it take to pay for a project like that if we thought about it in that way?” he says.
Seeking Valley Transit feedback
The East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission is seeking survey feedback on proposed Valley Transit route changes. The organization welcomes feedback from anyone, from riders to employers. To read more, please visit Insight’s website for an online story on the project, and to provide feedback by Nov. 15, visit https://bit.ly/2lZnji5.