Every weekend, just as tourists are heading in and locals are heading out, the roadway shows its shortcomings with traffic backups, particularly around troublesome intersections with other highways such as the state Highway 21 interchange in Oshkosh.
But this is more than a weekend headache. Highway 41 is considered the economic artery for the Fox Valley and much of Northeast Wisconsin, connecting the region to the Milwaukee and Madison areas and serving as the only high-speed corridor across the Fox River system. Allowing the blockage to persist could threaten the economic vitality of the region.
Help is on its way in the form of a $433 million expansion of the roadway through Winnebago County that will widen the road and reconstruct many of the troublesome interchanges.
“From a capacity standpoint, the current design has outlived its usefulness,” says Tom Bucholz, project manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Northeast Region. “It was designed in the late 1950s.”
While the project has been under way since 2005 with behind-the-scenes activities related to design and property acquisition, dirt will actually begin moving later this year as physical construction gets under way. It’s none too soon for those living and working in the region.
“Traffic has pretty clearly exceeded what that system can handle,” says John Casper, president and CEO of the Oshkosh Area Chamber of Commerce. “It is certainly a safety issue, and it will make that whole area more accessible.”
Overall, the project will involve expanding the number of northbound and southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 41 from State Highway 26 in southern Winnebago County to the Breezewood Lane Interchange in Neenah, renovating or reconstructing seven interchanges and upgrading and widening the Lake Butte des Morts Causeway.
During construction, Bucholz says the project will be staged so that there are clear detour routes around the affected areas.
The 17-mile expansion project will feature three northbound and south-bound lanes for traffic, matching the segment of Highway 41 that traverses Outagamie County. Current traffic measurements show that more than 80,000 vehicles travel some sections of the roadway, with most seeing between 60,000 and 70,000 vehicles a day.
Several of the interchanges do not meet current design standards, and the adjoining sections of the roadway have accident rates among the highest in the state.
The highway 41/21 interchange has been a problem for years, with a crash rate more than double what the state considers problematic. The state considers an interchange a problem if it has 1.5 accidents per million vehicles. That interchange has 3.55 crashes per million vehicles.
From January of 2003 to December 2005, there were 120 crashes at that interchange alone, says Scott Nelson, a regional safety engineer with the DOT.
“That was a tipoff to us,” he says. “That’s a spot we are looking to make the biggest changes.”
The changes outlined by the DOT should make it easier to move both people and products around and through the Fox Valley area, says Michael A. Burayidi, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
He also sees no conflict between plans to expand the capacity of Highway 41 at a time when much of the national debate seems aimed at reducing auto use.
“That’s really two different issues. We want to decrease traffic in residential areas by making them more compact and pedestrian friendly,” Burayidi says. “When we are talking about arterials such as Highway 41, we want to increase the capacity to decrease the congestions. It’s not at all incompatible.”
Burayidi does not see the expansion as necessarily opening up additional properties for economic development or an economic boom tied to the project. He does see it as beneficial to current businesses that will find fewer hassles in moving around the region.
There are some negative business effects to the project, however. Like any expansion project, the state has acquired property that several businesses are, or were, operating on. Bucholz estimates that eventually nine to 10 businesses will either relocate or shut down because of property acquisitions.
Some of that has already occurred. The Howard Johnson’s Motel at Highways 41 and 21 has already been razed, and Kwik Trip opened a new location at the state Highway 44 interchange to replace the location adjacent to Highway 21.
Given the size of the project, Casper said the displacement seemed minimal. The state is providing assistance to those businesses that wish to relocate, though the Chamber of Commerce will certainly help anyone who asks. The state pays fair market value, which is probably better than anyone could receive on the open market given the current conditions, he says.
While the view is perhaps not as rosy to the owners of those properties, Casper says this project is an important one to the area’s future.
“When I look into my crystal ball, I don’t see people giving up their cars or freight moving around the area any other way,” he says. “We have been working for a long time to get this going.”