State Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), the Republican nominee for the 12th district Senate seat, has weighed in on the contentious plans the state Department of Transportation has for Hwy. 51 reconstruction, saying the agency needs to head back to the drawing board and pay attention to local concerns.
Tiffany made his comments in an Aug. 23 letter to DOT secretary Mark Gottlieb. The Northwoods Republican observed that Cassian, Hazelhurst, Minocqua, Woodruff, and Arbor Vitae would all be affected over the next several years.
“I am told the Department of Transportation views the Minocqua portion of the project to be ‘set in stone,’” Tiffany wrote. “It is my understanding that the other communities still have time before their respective plans are finalized.”
However, Tiffany said he believed the department needed to re-examine the entire project, including the already finalized Minocqua portion.
“Regardless of where we are in the process, I believe the DOT must go back to the drawing board on the entire section of Hwy. 51 from Cassian to Arbor Vitae,” he wrote.
Tiffany said he talked with a senior DOT official in March after hearing from concerned citizens who lived, worked and ran businesses in the Hwy. 51 corridor. During that discussion, Tiffany continued, the official told him the department’s task was to move traffic.
And while that may be the case, Tiffany wrote to Gottlieb, it should not be the department’s only concern.
“I agree that moving traffic and moving it safely are important pieces of what the DOT does,” Tiffany wrote. “However, STOPPING traffic is equally important for all of the businesses located in the 51 corridor.”
Complicating business access
Rather than helping businesses, Tiffany continued, the current DOT plan in Minocqua complicates business accessibility by closing dozens of driveways.
“With the high number of trailers being pulled by customers and vendors of Hwy. 51 businesses, it will become increasingly difficult for them to access these businesses,” he wrote.
What’s more, Tiffany added, the DOT has used safety as a rationale to close the accesses, though no evidence supports any safety problem along the route with existing driveways.
“Part of the rationale for closing off the access points, according to your staff, is to improve safety,” Tiffany wrote. “Yet, when reviewing crash statistics from the local police departments, there is no history of extraordinary safety concerns.”
The DOT originally planned to close more than 50 driveways between Front Street in Minocqua and Hwy. J. Despite public outcry, a petition campaign and gubernatorial attention, the agency has held firm on most of its access point decisions, relenting on only about 10 driveways.
In his letter, Tiffany said the Minocqua driveways were not the only concern.
“While the issue of access points is most concerning for local businesses, residents of Hazelhurst are wondering why the new divided highway proposal just south of the town calls for taking land west of the existing 51 corridor,” he wrote. “Land transaction records show that land was purchased by the DOT a few years ago on the east side of Hwy 51. It seems unnecessary to encroach on and devalue lakefront property when the state already has land available on the east side of 51.”
Tiffany said the concerns outlined in his letter named only a few of the outstanding points of contention and questions. Indeed, though his letter doesn’t mention it, town of Woodruff officials have also weighed in over time, most recently raising questions about the scope of the project, including continued highway access to the Hwy. 51 cemetery in town and the need for additional sidewalks.
The broad swath of complaints and protests, from Hazelhurst to Woodruff, should cause the department to reassess and redraw its plans, Tiffany said, taking community concerns into account.
“Mr. Secretary, I know it is very difficult to satisfy all interests when completing road projects,” Tiffany wrote. “However, I think it is imperative for the DOT to hit the reset button on this project. A greater level of coordination with area residents must be undertaken to balance the safety concerns we all have with the economic and environmental harm that will occur with the current proposal.”
The first phase of the reconstruction project, from Front Street in Minocqua to Hwy. J, is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2013.
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org