UP FRONT: Keep on truckin'

Posted on Feb 1, 2015 :: Up Front
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The Fox Valley region will finally get its Interstate.

After years of lobbying, and with the pending completion of nearly $1.51 billion worth of construction in Winnebago and Brown counties, Congress has passed legislation clearing the way for U.S. Highway 41 to be upgraded into the Federal Interstate Highway system.

The newly designated I-41 will run from Green Bay to the Illinois border, providing an Interstate route through the major population and manufacturing centers of Northeast Wisconsin — Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac — and linking into the I-94 corridor at Milwaukee. Click here to view map of conversion area in our digital magazine.

While the changes may seem semantic, that Interstate designation is important to economic development leaders marketing the region.

“One of the first criteria many site selectors look at is your access to the Interstate system,” says Joe Reitemeier, president and CEO of the Fond du Lac County Association of Commerce. “They are looking for reasons to eliminate you, so this enhances our opportunities to stay on the list and be considered.”

The federal government identified the 175 miles of highway from Green Bay to the border for inclusion in the Interstate system in 2005. Planning began in 2007 and the state began directing resources toward the conversion in 2011.

In December of 2014, the missing piece — legislation allowing trucks heavier than 80,000 pounds — was included as part of the federal omnibus appropriations bill approved by Congress. The waiver was needed since the current weight limit on Highway 41 is 100,000 pounds, and trucks from businesses in the region routinely haul loads exceeding the federal limit of 80,000 pounds.

Without the weight limit waiver, the marketing and economic development benefits of having a nearby Interstate could have been cancelled out by the additional shipping costs for manufacturers in the area, says Jayme Sellen, government affairs director for the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce.

The conversion — especially getting to keep the number 41 — is a big win for the area’s economic development efforts, she says.

“While it’s true that U.S. 41 is a major highway, you don’t necessarily know that unless you are from this area,” Sellen says. “The designation sends a signal that the necessary infrastructure is in place to move products and materials. It’s one that everyone understands.”

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation attributes several benefits to the region once the conversion is completed, including:
» Interstate highways provide a corridor identity and encourage growth. Nineteen of the 26 major distribution centers in Wisconsin are located within five miles of an Interstate.
» Interstate status will elevate U.S. 41 from a regionally-known freeway to a nationally recognized corridor. This will allow communities along the route to be competitive when large corporations are looking for market expansion locations.
» The corridor’s approximate center point, Fond du Lac, is within a day’s drive of all other major Midwestern U.S. metropolitan areas containing 15 percent of the country’s population.
» The extension along I-94 links the Fox Valley and Green Bay metropolitan areas and markets to the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Chicago is the economic epicenter of the entire Midwest and a key hub near the end of the corridor.

Of course, there is still some construction to be completed on the Brown County segments of 41 through 2017, but signs carrying the new Interstate 41 designation will begin appearing in September. In all, some 3,500 signs will need to be changed, an effort that will involve both the Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation.