Highway 41 Shifts Work Into Gear

Posted on Dec 1, 2009 :: Up Front
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Brian Petit has a great perspective on the expansion and reconstruction of U.S. Highway 41 in Winnebago County. It’s not just the great view he gets from the windows of Eckland Motorsports, which perches between Lake Winnebago and highways 41 and 45 and provides essentially a ringside seat. His thoughts on the project have less to do with the great view than with the obstacles the project will create for customers getting to the shop.

Petit knows the $578 million project will be great when concluded – providing six lanes of traffic from Wisconsin Highway 26 in Oshkosh to Breezewood Lane in Neenah. But when crews completely shut down the Highway 45 interchange to reconstruct it and widen Highway 41, he’s not so sure folks will be able to get to the front door.

“It hasn’t been bad,” Petit says of the project’s early stages, which include fill work around the Lake Butte des Morts causeway and the construction of an overpass connecting Fountain Avenue and Snell Road. When Highway 45 is closed, getting to Eckland from Highway 41 means detours of up to two miles.

“It’s going to get worse. We’ve got good visibility and our current customers will find a way. It’s the new customers that I worry about,” Petit says.

Michael R. King worries about it as well. As the project supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, King says access is the most sensitive issue he deals with in regular meetings with business owners along U.S. 41. He says he does his best to let them know when things will happen and for how long.

“It’s if you surprise them with something that you get problems,” says King, while truck traffic breezes past his shoulder along the Lake Butte des Morts causeway – his only protection a pre-cast concrete barrier and the attentiveness of oncoming drivers hurtling across the bridge.

This fall, travelers along U.S. 41 have been dealing with the prelude to a seven-year project that will see 17 miles of the highway in Winnebago County upgraded, along with the improvement or complete reconstruction of several interchanges and the expansion and improvement of the causeway. In 2010, the Wisconsin DOT will begin work on the Brown County section of the road, which encompasses a 14-mile stretch of U.S. 41, with another nine interchanges that will be rebuilt.

Combined, the two projects total nearly $1.5 billion in highway construction for the New North region, with both projects expected to be completed in 2016.

While the highway spending will help to pump money into the regional economy – there are crews and materials coming from all over the state for the projects – highway officials say the project is necessary for the economic health of the area.

According to the DOT, there are approximately 864,000 jobs located along Highway 41, with nearly 37 percent of the state’s industrial parks located within one mile of the highway. Additionally, the highway is a vital link in the state’s tourism economy, running through 12 counties that account for more than $3.3 billion in tourism business generated each year.

The roadway’s economic importance has also been recognized on the national level, with the federal government awarding grants for four segments of work in Winnebago County through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known more commonly as the stimulus bill.

As important as the roadway is on a macro level, the work itself will bring some headaches to the micro level for businesses operating nearby. The biggest of these obstacles will be the shutdown of major interchanges during the reconstruction. The DOT will try to leapfrog such work, so that the interchanges immediately before and after the one under construction will remain open.

Still, the plan has some skeptics. Count Norm Mueller of Mueller Chrysler Plymouth among those ranks.

Some have suggested that Mueller, who owns commercial properties on both sides of the U.S. 41-Wisconsin Highway 21 interchange, opposes the expansion of U.S. 41. Mueller says that is not the case. He has no problem with the highway expanding from four lanes to six, but rather the plan for accomplishing it. He has been politically active to get the plan changed, but has so far had no luck.

From Mueller’s point of view, completely closing interchanges is going to cause nothing but gridlock for Oshkosh as a whole and nothing but heartache for business owners along U.S. 41.

“When they have done other projects like this, they have never completely shut things down,” Mueller says. “The real shock will come when they put up those barricades. We hope to make them come up with a better plan.”

Highway 41 project overview
» The largest road construction project in the history of Northeast Wisconsin.
» 31 total miles of roadway reconstructed, 17 in Winnebago County and 14 miles in Brown County.
» 16 interchanges improved, 13 of which will be completely reconstructed.
» 44 roundabouts added.
» Four lanes will be expanded from six to 10 lanes along the route.

For the latest information on the Wisconsin DOT’s Highway 41 project, including the road closings and work schedules, visit the project web site at us41wisconsin.gov/home